A number of global telecom tech companies introduced foldable smartphones to the market last year – some offered a glimpse of impending models while others resorted to a more bold entry with units that were almost immediately available for purchase

DISRUPTIVE Combining the sleek size of a mobile phone with the relatively large display of a tablet computer could be something of a game changer. One of the major drawbacks of mobile phones has been the small screen area.

Tablet PCs on the other hand, haven’t been the most convenient of devices to carry around. But combine both devices and there’s a strong customer proposition in foldable smartphones, which overcome both fundamental drawbacks.

CHANGE In recent times, there hasn’t been so much to write home about exponential change in either the mobile phone or tablet PC markets. While both device segments were extremely successful with industry disruption at the outset, the incremental advances that were seen over time have been largely around increasing processing power, storage, features and enhancements in software, as well as design.

Growth in the unit sales of both segments is most likely to have reached their saturation point – with sales growth in later years being driven by market expansion. An exponential change in the industry was expected and likely needed too.

LAUNCH Despite the initial hype about foldable smartphones, the optimism seems to have been short-lived. Some reviews were sceptical and mentioned a plethora of issues with the display screens on a few of the new devices. The high price tag at launch was another major drawback, which made the devices more of a luxury and skimmed the market to an elite clientele.

And not many seemed to have been convinced that the extra screen size justified the huge price differential with which this innovation came.

SUBSTITUTION Introduction of the combined device is likely to impact the sales of both mobile phones and tablet PCs in the longer term due to the fact that a foldable smartphone can be used in place of both these devices.

Meanwhile, one wonders why telecom tech companies would risk the continuity of two product segments with this advancement. Perhaps the evolution to foldable smartphones was inevitable.

DURABILITY The folding mechanism is likely to make these devices inherently prone to wear and tear over time. Display surfaces have been flat for quite some time and even curved displays of recent televisions are not foldable. The strain on the display caused by folding the device many times is likely to damage the display.

Though some manufacturers achieved an almost seamless fold, others haven’t been as successful – with a fold line being slightly visible and appearing as a cut in the centre of the display screen.

MARKET Traditionally, when a company introduces an innovative product to the market, it takes weeks if not months for similar products to be introduced by competitors. However, with foldable smartphones, a number of competing products reached the market almost simultaneously and a new trend of a much shorter first-mover advantage was seen.

OPTIONS While the foldable smartphone is a significant advancement, there are a number of other technological advancements that could question the need for such a device in the first place.

Smart wearables such as smartwatches have gained popularity and some provide a calling feature without having to link to a mobile phone. Many virtual assistants can respond to voice commands with the ability to carry out several tasks almost seamlessly and thereby reduce the need for a smartphone. And televisions and display panels in cars have also become smart, as well as more interactive.

These factors raise an important question: do we need yet another device to carry around?

The observations from the foldable smartphone market are also relevant for other industries.

They include an increasing trend of convergence – an observation that a first-mover advantage is no longer guaranteed, the dilemma of perfecting a product and time taken to reach the market, as well as constant pressure on tech companies to disrupt before being disrupted.

Nevertheless, considering the evolution and disruptions seen in the telecom technology sector over the past two decades, we can expect to see many more exciting advances in the years ahead.

BY Rehan Fernando