A Nikkei report out of China this week has revealed Huawei’s efforts to build and release a foldable smartphone ahead of Android archrival Samsung. Samsung has long held the display innovation lead thanks to its subsidiary Samsung Display, which just announced that its upcoming “unbreakable” flexible phone screen has been certified for being extra tough and durable. But Huawei, making use of flexible OLED panels from Chinese supplier BOE, is apparently planning to do a very limited run of foldable handsets, with analysts estimating they could come as soon as early next year.
BOE, which was dubbed Beijing Oriental Electronics at its outset back in 1993, won’t be a familiar name to most tech observers. Its display business has been rapidly improving in recent times, however, and the company has already secured some of Apple’s iPhone LCD business. BOE’s next foray is to push further into OLED production and innovation, which is where the flexible OLED panels that Huawei is mooted to be using come in. Some rather crude foldable phone-tablet hybrid prototypes have already been shown off by BOE, and you can see an example of them in the video below.
For Huawei, rushing ahead of the competition to grab the title of being first is an established practice. In 2014, amid rumors of an iPhone set to use a sapphire crystal display, Huawei went ahead and issued a limited edition Huawei Ascend P7 Sapphire, hurrying it out in time to beat the iPhone that ended up not using the technology. A year later in 2015, Huawei also beat Apple to the punch by implementing Force Touch in a special edition of its Huawei Mate S. The same pattern is apparent with Huawei’s reported pursuit of a foldable phone: using a hyper-accelerated development cycle to issue a limited production run of a new phone with a headline-grabbing feature.
The benefits of foldable phones — beside the obvious cool factor — are far from obvious today, whereas the reasons for skepticism are numerous. On the hardware front, any sort of folding mechanism or design will inevitably make the phone thicker, simultaneously allowing less space for a battery and making larger power demands by virtue of its larger screen. It’s difficult to imagine a first-generation foldable device being anywhere near as refined as modern smartphone flagships with conventional displays. Then there’s the massive issue of software: a foldable phone will require an adaptable user interface that responds quickly to changes in screen size and also provides some tailored experiences unavailable on other phones. Can we really trust Huawei or Samsung, whose expertise lies in hardware, to craft such sophisticated software?