Rollable phones look amazing. But don’t get too excited just yet
Rollable phones look amazing. But don’t get too excited just yet
Imagine if your phone or tablet could change the size of its screen depending on what you’re doing? That’s the future that Motorola and Samsung are eyeing, as both companies showed off concept devices that can expand or shrink their screens with the press of a button.
Motorola showed off its concept at Mobile World Congress this week, while Samsung showed off a slew of facelifted prototypes at CES in January. Concepts like this prove that phone makers are thinking about the next evolution of personal devices beyond today’s static touchscreens. They’re even looking beyond foldable phones, which have only been widely available for just over three years.
But as eye-catching as these concepts are, it’s likely to be a long time before you actually carry one around. High prices, engineering and durability challenges, and a lack of compelling use cases will likely mean these concepts won’t turn into real products anytime soon. And if they do, there are still good reasons why you should wait to buy one.
Rollable phones attract attention
Concept devices with stretchable screens have surfaced before, but they caught the eye again this week at Mobile World Congress thanks to Motorola and its parent company Lenovo.
Motorola showed off its prototype palm-sized phone that expands with the double press of a button. And even better, the screen automatically deploys when using certain apps like YouTube, according to my colleague Andrew Lanxon, who got to see the device at the conference. The phone can also switch between small and large modes depending on what you’re doing in an app. For example, the phone might stay small when you scroll through your inbox, but it might automatically expand when you compose an email, writes Lanxon.
When the device is in its compact form, the screen wraps around the bottom of the device to provide a secondary screen on the back of the phone. I can’t think of many other reasons to use that extra screen other than as a viewfinder to take selfies with the rear camera, like Lanxon did during its demo. Either way, it’s interesting to see how Motorola plans to use this technology.
Even though phones with rollable screens are in their infancy, they could have some notable advantages over today’s foldables, according to Ross Young, CEO and co-founder of Display Supply Chain Consultants. The crease could be smaller since it would be at the edge of the device rather than the center, he said via email. Rollable phones will also likely be thinner than current devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 4, which looks like two phones stacked on top of each other when folded.
But these benefits will likely come with additional technical challenges. Motors and sliding mechanisms likely require more power consumption, says Young.
“Some brands have told us there’s still a lot of work to do,” he said.
It’s not the first time that Motorola has presented a concept like this; the phone maker also showcased the technology at Lenovo’s Tech World conference last year. But his arrival at MWC underscores Motorola’s ambitions in this area.
Motorola isn’t the only company interested in making phones with screens that can roll, slide and extend. Almost two months ago, Samsung presented its own vision of what futuristic phones and tablets could look like. The star of the show was the Flex Hybrid concept, which looks like a laptop when closed but can switch between 10.5-inch and 12.4-inch screen sizes when open.
LG also caused a stir with the rollable phone concept it teased at CES 2021, although the company shut down its mobile phone business soon after. Chinese tech giant Oppo has developed a concept rollable phone with a 6.7-inch display that flips into a 7.4-inch tablet-sized display.
At the same time, foldable phones – which are generally seen as the precursor to future rollable devices – still represent only a part of the overall smartphone market. Foldable phones are estimated to make up just 1.1% of smartphone shipments in 2022 and are expected to make up 2.8% in 2026, according to International Data Corporation. But that hasn’t stopped phone makers from looking ahead.
“They need to keep innovating to differentiate themselves,” said Brad Akyuz, executive director and mobile analyst at NPD Group. “It’s the only way for them to get ahead of the competition.”
But don’t plan on buying one anytime soon
The word “concept” is crucial; these devices are not products. Instead, they’re proofs of concept intended to illustrate the direction these companies might take when developing future smartphones. That means we don’t know when rollable phones from Motorola, Samsung or other device makers will launch, if ever.
The foldable phone market could serve as a model. Samsung demonstrated flexible display technology as early as 2013, but it didn’t release its first phone that could fold in half until 2019.
Whether a rollable phone arrives in the short term or not, analysts believe it will take several years for the devices to become a staple in the tech world. Akyuz puts that at around three to four years, while Bill Menezes, director of Gartner market research covering the telecommunications industry, estimates three to six years.
There are various reasons for this, all of which reflect the challenges facing the foldable phone industry. Prices should be affordable and phones should be durable enough to withstand daily use without worry.
They also need to offer cool features that dramatically improve the way you use your mobile device to make them useful. Even though today’s foldables have different designs that make our phones more compact when closed, the overall experience is the same as using a standard phone. Samsung is trying to solve this problem with a feature called Flex Mode, which splits compatible apps onto the upper and lower parts of the screen when folded halfway. But it feels more like an optimization than a whole new way to use your phone.
“A foldable phone really isn’t that different from a flat phone concept,” Menezes said. “Once you open it, you’re still scrolling to get to different apps, or different screens or tabs.”
Even if a company like Motorola or Samsung releases a rollable phone in the near future, you probably shouldn’t buy it. First-generation products can be expensive, prone to damage, and less refined than later versions.
Take 2019’s Galaxy Fold, for example, whose launch Samsung postponed after a small number of reviewers reported display issues. That phone was also priced at $1,980, while the much-improved Galaxy Z Fold 4, which just launched in August, starts at $1,800. Samsung’s smallest foldable, the Galaxy Z Flip, has also matured; the first version had a small screen that felt barely useful and lacked 5G.
Now, more than three years after the launch of the Galaxy Fold, demand for foldable devices is starting to pick up. Even though IDC’s report suggests foldables only make up a fraction of the smartphone market, shipments are estimated to have increased 66.6% in 2022 compared to 2021. NPD’s Connected Intelligence Mobility Survey Group also suggests that interest is growing. While 51% of survey respondents said they weren’t at all likely to buy a foldable phone in 2019, only 36% said the same in 2022, according to survey data shared. with CNET.
“I think it’s the future, I don’t think we can deny that,” Akyuz said. “But as we’ve seen with the foldable category, it’s just going to take a bit of time to get there.”