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Samsung's Next Big Gamble: A Foldable Galaxy S7?

Forbes logo Forbes 27-07-2015 Jay McGregor, Contributor

A still from Samsung's flexible display advert.: A still from Samsung’s flexible display advert.© Provided by Forbes A still from Samsung’s flexible display advert.

It’s been two years since Samsung debuted its flexible display technology at CES 2013, and 4 years since it first played with the concept at CES 2011. In that time, the Korean tech giant has launched numerous phones, and not one of them is intentionally bendy. What’s happened? Where’s the fully flexible smartphone Samsung made a big deal out of two years ago?

In the months following the unveiling, it seemed like everyone was getting in on the folding action. Both Nokia and LG announced some impressive folding technology. Then it all went quiet, until some irresponsible tight-jeaned youngsters put their iPhones in their back pocket…

First, let’s go back to that keynote.

What we can see here is Samsung talking extensively about ‘flexible’ displays and showing off a number of different prototypes. What’s important to note is that ‘flexible’, as Samsung defines it, includes a range of display types that it’s working on. I was told that “Unbreakable”, “Curved”, “Foldable” and “Rollable” all fall under the flexible umbrella.

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So far, Samsung’s only commercial flexible devices are the Galaxy Note Edge, Galaxy S6 Edge and Galaxy Round – all of which fall under the ‘Curved’ category. This is Samsung delivering on the latter part of its CES keynote.

The curves of the S6 Edge up close. Image credit: Gordon Kelly© Provided by Forbes The curves of the S6 Edge up close. Image credit: Gordon Kelly

But what about the foldable display? Both the curved prototype and the foldable prototype seemed at similar stages in the prototyping process- but foldable displays are yet to emerge. Of course, it’s impossible to truly know where Samsung’s at with developing this technology. But if foldable displays were purely concept, we’d have been looking at a drawing on a napkin and not a working device that’s being debuted to the world.

Quotes from Samsung Display’s Lee Chang-hoon that circulated around last November convinced many that the Korean tech company was planning to launch something foldable this year.

At an investors forum in New York last November, Chang-hoon said: “We will secure production capacity of 30,000 to 40,000 [flexible displays each month] by the end of next year,” and added “we plan to provide consumers with a product that has a flexible display by the end of the year. However, nothing has been decided on the finished product.”

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Chang-hoon’s terminology is key here: he used the ambiguous flexible term, which, as we know, emcompasses four types of display panel. So was he talking about the Galaxy S6 Edge? Maybe. It certainly seems unlikely that Samsung is going to launch a fully foldable smartphone before Christmas this year.

I quizzed Samsung on Chang-hoon’s comments and it was equally vague with its wording. “Mr. Lee belongs to Samsung Display Co., Ltd. developing and manufacturing flexible display panels. Samsung Display is developing flexible panels for various types of devices. Set-makers are able to make consumer electronics devices by using the panels of Samsung Display. However, nothing has been specifically decided with your question.”

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The only thing worth taking away from that response is “Samsung Display is developing flexible panels for various types of devices”. “Types” of devices, if I’m to speculate, means it’s testing out ideas for something radical – given that we know Samsung has a penchant for dramatics.

The only other indication that Samsung might be working on something remotely foldable comes from a single-line quote from an unnamed Samsung official, reported by Business Korea. The official said, according to the publication, “the industry believes that the commercialization of foldable smartphones will be possible in 2016.”

That’s pretty thin, and offers little in the way of information. Not only is the source unnamed, but also they talk about “the industry”, rather than Samsung. Out of context, it makes great daily news fodder. But the official easily could’ve been making a general comment on where they think the industry is headed, or even why flexible displays aren’t possible yet.

I asked Samsung flat-out if the CES prototype was a proof of concept that’d been quietly dropped, it responded with: “Samsung Display is developing various types of flexible displays such as foldable and rollable. We work closely with handset partners but nothing has been decided yet about the specific launching plan and schedule.”

So it hasn’t been dropped, it appears. Samsung is actively working on a foldable and rollable display. But why has nothing been said, leaked or even mentioned since CES then? Usually when a company is developing new innovative tech, it will direct inquiring journalists to its research in the field or previous announcements (Samsung proudly announced its work on emded package-on-package memory before it’s rumoured inclusion in the next Galaxy Note). That wasn’t the case here. Instead I got a brief, ambiguous statement. What’s happening?

It could be because it’s such a radical concept that it’s deemed too high-risk to trial any time soon. Its sales slump, which has been ongoing since 2013, could colour the tech company’s thinking about future gambles: the S6 and S6 Edge scored well with reviewers but disappointed in sales. Samsung could be thinking twice about making the jump to the next level of flexibility. Can the company afford another high profile flop so soon after the last two?

With that said,however, Samsung isn’t one to shy away from doing something radical (S6 Edge and Galaxy Note were fairly revolutionary for their time). What’s far more likely is that Samsung hasn’t found a design that works – making foldable components is another story entirely.The challenge will be to build something that’s innovative but familiar enough for users to feel comfortable. I imagine Samsung is grappling with this as we speak.

However whether Samsung is working furiously behind the scenes, or quietly shying away from foldable displays doesn’t matter. They’re coming.

The other Korean tech giant, LG, announced yesterday that it’s pumping $1.3bn into ramping up development of foldable OLED displays, with a commercialisation date of 2017.

The two companies have already competed in this area recently with the G Flex and Note Edge last year, not to mention both companies repeatedly stating the importance of such flexible technology for years now. It could very well be that they’re working to a similar schedule as they try to outdo each other in display innovation.

So will the Galaxy S7 be fully foldable? Will we see rumours around Samsung’s new ‘back to the drawing board’ project later this year? Samsung is definitely working on something, it has made that much clear.

Given Samsung’s propensity to boast, this lack of information about what it’s doing is, frankly, strange. But I’ll be watching on with interest as LG and Samsung battle it out for foldable supremacy.

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