Forbes’ Expert Dismisses the Long Term Impact of Foldable Displays
Tim Bajarin, writing in Forbes concludes that foldable smartphones will never be mainstream devices and will probably represent less than 8%-10% of all smartphones shipped in the future, at best.
Tim’s argument is that cost is the most prohibitive factor today since these carry premium prices anywhere from $1400-1900. While prices could come down over time, the critical component in a folding smartphone is the display itself, and it will remain a premium cost for some time. In talking with two folding display vendors recently, I learned that it is unlikely they will make the kind of investments needed to expand their foldable display manufacturing lines. Given the demand for more mainstream displays, especially OLED displays that are in high demand and very profitable, it is there they are making the most investments.
BOE, who showed me their first foldable display in mid-2018, landed a lucrative contract with Apple late last year to work on OLED screens. The display vendors tell me that the initial demand in displays will be for OLED in premium phones, and then as they ramp up their manufacturing lines to create them in greater numbers, we will see OLED displays in even mid-range smartphones as early as mid 2021. I love the ingenuity and technical designs of a foldable smartphone, but I am just not convinced that they will ever garner real demand by mainstream users. Most likely, they will remain a product that attracts early adopters, some verticals and very few mainstream users.
The other folding display form factor in the works are folding laptops. In May of 2019, Lenovo introduced its first foldable in their ThinkPad X1 line of notebooks in prototype form. I got to spend some hands-on time with it at CES in January 2020. The X1 Foldable was still a prototype, but it was designed by Lenovo's stellar Yamoto, Japan labs, which created the solid ThinkPad line of laptops.
To view how the Lenovo X1 foldable works, check out this video from The Verge.
The keyboard on this foldable PC is external, so to use it, you would stand the unfolded laptop up and place the Bluetooth keyboard in front of it. Surprisingly, this works well and is not at all an odd configuration. In the folded mode, it feels like a book. Unfold it, and it is a large tablet/laptop. The more I got to play with it, the more I began to realize that this design for portable computing could be a game-changer, at least in terms of new and innovative mobile computing platforms.
At first, it will be far too expensive for the mass market and instead will find its way into vertical markets where I suspect it will get serious interest. Over time, if the prices come down, it could find a niche market with road warriors and executives who want the ultimate portability and will be willing to pay the premium rates for this type of mobile computing experience. The cost of the foldable display is close to triple the price of a traditional screen in a laptop. Making them in large volumes is not really in the cards for these specialty display manufacturers, at least in the near future. I have tracked laptops since they entered into the market in 1985 and have a good feel for these product design and functionality. This new Lenovo foldable and two others that will be introduced later this year or early next year represent a big step in portable computing. While I believe that foldable laptops might fare better than foldable smartphones, at best, I see neither of these new foldable products being more than 8%-10% of their respective markets by 2023.
Tim Bajarin is a self-proclaimed leading industry consultant, analyst and futurist, covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. A member of Creative Strategies since 1981 with articles and/or analysis in USA Today, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time and Newsweek magazines, BusinessWeek and most of the leading business and trade publications. I am known as a concise, futuristic analyst, credited with predicting the desktop publishing revolution three years before it hit the market, and identifying multimedia as a major trend in written reports as early as 1986. My writing and analysis have been at the forefront of the digital revolution and I am considered one of the leading experts in the field of technology adoption cycles. I have also spoken at many business school programs about marketing to consumers. I have authored major industry studies on PC, portable computing, pen-based computing, desktop publishing, multimedia computing and the digital home. Currently, I serve on multiple conference advisory boards and am a frequent featured speaker at computer conferences worldwide. I also serve on technology advisory councils for IBM/Lenovo, Dell, and on specialty councils for three large semiconductor companies.
Musing’s take: What is mainstream -- 10% of 1.5m smartphones is 150m devices or more than the total number of monitors, 80% of the notebooks and 70% of the TVs. Tim’s comments reflect a naivety regarding the OLED display. For example, he said, ”Given the demand for more mainstream displays, especially OLED displays that are in high demand and very profitable, it is there they are making the most investments.” Wouldn’t Samsung be pleased if that were true given their current utilization rate on flexible fabs is 40% to 70% and they have stopped investing in new small/medium fabs. He also missed the point that foldable displays already use virtually the same technology as flexible displays and much of the company’s R&D is going into thinning the display to improve the foldability which also accrues to the basic flexible display. Moreover, in 5-years an 8-10% market share would be a welcome result, given the current forecasts are ~4-5%.But perhaps the most egregious futuristic miss is that display costs always come down and the flexible yields are ~80% and should go up to 90%, while the foldable are more likely in the 50% range the technology has lots of cost reduction opportunities.