Qualcomm Throws Cold Water on Foldable Smartphone in 2018
March 26, 2018
Regarding the release of a foldable smartphone as previewed at CES 2018, Salman Saeed, Qualcomm’s product manager of display technology, told TechRadar, we might not see the phone arrive as soon as recent rumors have teased. In fact, it might be years until something along the lines of the foldable phone, like what we’ve seen in leaked Samsung patents, actually comes to fruition. The challenge includes fine-tuning the user experience across multiple displays to justify their existence, and durability continues to be the main issue. Saeed said, "They [phone manufacturers] haven’t cracked the material science right now to produce electrodes that can repeatedly withstand bending and folding", pointing to the transistors in the display architecture as being the weakest link, as these components that power individual pixels “are not flexible enough today” to withstand frequent bending.
But, while likely common knowledge among display engineers, Saeed shared that accomplishing such a feat will be difficult and that “they [phone manufacturers] haven’t really cracked the material science right now to produce electrodes that can repeatedly withstand bending and folding.”
Saeed points to the ZTE Axon M as a forerunner of a future filled with wallet-style foldable phones. The ZTE Axon M from 2017 might not have been bought by reams of consumers, or even widely recognized, but Saeed stated it was an important step forward for foldable phones, both in proving the concept had a lot of potential and that it needed a lot of work. “[The ZTE Axon M] looks a little ugly... the use cases are pretty bad. The second display does practically nothing, but I think it’s compelling. “Rather than having a super large primary display, you could have a foldable phone that becomes an even larger display, so that if you’re doing some content creation, you have a larger surface area to work on.” Creating a user experience that flows neatly between the screens will remain as fierce a challenge as building these devices, but Saeed and Qualcomm are optimistic. “I think it’s possible for them to do it [bring foldable phones to market]... All of the tier 1 phone manufacturers are working very hard on this. The big phone makers all have these devices in their labs, but it’s just a reliability issue at this point.” It’s sometimes tough to find ways to best take advantage of high-end phone specs, and some of the horsepower goes unused. But whenever foldable smartphones do arrive, Saeed thinks that consumers will be able to get even more performance for their money.
“If you look at what Samsung has done with the Snapdragon 835 [speaking of the Samsung Galaxy S8] and DeX, our chipset can power two...three...four displays at the same time, so yeah, we’re underutilized right now. We have the GPU horsepower, we have everything needed to fully power all of those extra pixels.”
We’re ready for the foldable future and from the sound of it, so are the component manufacturers, with more power thrust into our flagship phones every year.
It’s not pleasing for anyone to see these exciting phones hit a snag in development, but if there’s one thing we can be thankful in their apparent delay, it’s that at least the Samsung Galaxy X shouldn’t break under pressure.
Saeed showed his lack of comprehensive understanding of display technology by pointing to the ZTE foldable product as a good forerunner of a foldable display. It essentially copies products that have failed in the past and doubles the thickness and weight of the phone. Below is how a normal picture looks on the ZTE Axon M, Yeah, highlighting the problem with the hinge. Samsung claims to have solved the issues associated with repeated folding and unfolding of the backplane and the display itself. They point to the thickness of certain layers (polarizer, TFE, cover sheet) as remaining challenges. Where Saeed is correct is the need to correlate the capabilities of the display with the user experience, which is more the responsibility of the phone maker than the display maker.
Figure 1: ZTE Axon M with Seam