All Things Flexible
May 20, 2017
Samsung Electronics has been widely rumored to be working on the industry’s first “foldable” smartphone that can be bent 180 degrees to be used as a tablet and smartphone. There has been speculation that the phone could hit the market in the third quarter this year though in a small batch of about 100,000 units. But recent reports say the phone’s launch will be delayed further due to technical and marketability issues. The Investor recently talked with four OLED experts -- Kyunghee University professor Jang Jin, Samsung Display researcher Kim Tae-woong, IHS analyst Jerry Kang and UBI Research senior analyst Yi Choong-hoon -- about Samsung’s delayed foldable phone project. Below are their answers to key questions.
Q: Why is Samsung delaying the foldable phone project?
Yi: I think their top priority is not the foldable phone now. They seem to be focusing more on advancing its full-screen technology for the flagship S series, with its archrival Apple coming up a bigger-screen OLED iPhone in the latter half of this year.
Q: What is the biggest challenge?
Jang: I would say the display technology is still in development. A more advanced encapsulation technology should be developed to better protect display substrates from oxygen and water vapor.
Yi: Durability is the key issue. All parts, including battery, shouldn’t be damaged by continual folding and unfolding of the phone. Samsung engineers are reportedly testing the prototype 100,000 times a day.
Kim: Detachment between panel layers and adhesives, also known as decoupling, is another tricky issue to solve.
Q: What about its marketability?
Kang: Samsung may be gauging the timing from a business perspective. Based on some leaked images, they need to work more on user experience. It seems difficult to use the phone in one hand, while the hinge in the middle (that connects the two display screens) could be easily broken.
Yi: Handset makers are rolling out bigger screen phones to meet consumer demand for high-resolution video viewing. I think the market for a foldable phone, along with that for tablets, could open up when the cutting edge 4K resolution is more widely featured in smartphones.
Unfortunately, these experts are either holding back or not so expert as they provide little insight into the real issues stalling the introduction of a foldable display. Their citing of the following issues seems quite incomplete:
· Durability – Several years ago, Polymer Vision showed a foldable mobile device with an active matrix electrophoretic display that was tested to 1m folds. Clearly, Samsung or LGD could replicate the robustness of a small start-up.
· 4K resolution – Display resolution is quite independent of the flexibility and foldability. Samsung’s rigid and flexible displays performed equally when tested by DisplayMate
· Competition from Apple – Every reason to be the first to provide a foldable display
· Encapsulation – the current method works on more than 500m flexible smartphones.
What seems to be needed is:
· A better solution to the cover, which needs to have the hardness of glass but the flexibility of plastic. Kolon says their leading edge solution will not be ready for 2 years
· Encapsulation may have to be thinner than the present method to support a 1 mm curvature ratio
· The cover, touch and polarizer may have to be combined into a single layer.
· The use of a TCO other than ITO is required to minimize the cracking of the conductors
Finally, the form factor and usability are not fully developed. Currently, we hold the smartphone in one hand a touch with the other hand. Can this be done with a folded display? How thick must the device be in order to fold the display. The consumer expects a thin form factor. Other than a larger display, what benefits are derived? Phablets have served the purpose of smartphone/tablet up to now. These are all the reasons why Samsung should produce a device in small volumes to test its readiness in the commercial market.