The future of foldable phones could be affordability, not ridiculous specs and prices.
Big, expensive foldable phones such as the 7.3-inch Galaxy Fold, which costs $1,980, might be fun to geek out over and interesting to look at. But they’re not what people want to buy. Instead, it might be the smaller, simpler foldable design that winds up working for more people, at least as the category finds its footing.
For example, the $1,500 foldable Motorola Razr raised around it a new energy and nostalgia for the simple flip phones of the early 2000s, while the foldable screen also appealed to those with more modern tastes. Then there’s the clamshell design that Samsung teased at its own developer conference in October, which a new rumor suggests cost as little as $850. Beating them both in price is a $350 foldable phone created by the brother of Pablo Escobar, the late Colombian drug kingpin.
Of his affordable foldable, the Escobar Fold 1, Roberto De Jesús Escobar Gaviria says that the plastic screen “cannot break,” and has specs in keeping with expensive foldables, like a 7.8-inch AMOLED FHD Plus screen, dual 16- and 20-megapixel cameras, and a Snapdragon 8-series processor.
At this early stage in the foldable phone landscape, cost could make all the difference between a foldable phone that people like to look at and one they might actually buy. At a time when premium phones with all the frills can cost $1,000 or more, a $2,000 foldable device could, for many, be a bridge too far. Add expensive 5G connectivity on top of that, and it’s easy to see how foldable phone prices could climb right out of the realm of attainability for all but a small margin of buyers.
For most known brands, a cheaper foldable phone is likely to be a smaller one with fewer features, and it’ll cost around the price you might pay for a top-notch phone. For half the price of the Galaxy Fold — or a $2,600 Huawei Mate X — this class of foldable phone might find more committed buyers, even when cutting back on features.
There is, of course, a trade-off there. We’ve already seen interest in “cheaper” foldable phones from the $1,500 Motorola Razr launch — the Razr goes on sale Dec. 26. Although you save $500 compared to the Galaxy Fold, you also miss out on high-value features such as a much larger screen with more functionality, many more camera options and significantly greater storage for the price. In many ways, the question of Motorola Razr vs the Galaxy Fold presents a false sense of savings. When it comes to what people are willing to spend money on, those extra benefits might not matter.
For this type of enthusiast, there’s hope. Simpler foldable designs that cost less could very well feed the hunger for a new category of phone. Qualcomm, the world’s largest mobile chip-maker, just announced the Snapdragon 765, a new 5G chipset that aims to make ultrafast, midrange phones more affordable. But we can expect them to still cost more than today’s 4G phones with the same features.
Phone-makers such as TCL and Xiaomi are also experimenting with new foldable designs. Alongside TCL’s mammoth tri-fold, which opens into a 8-inch tablet, is a slim, flexible device that could one day wrap around a wrist. Motorola’s parent company, Lenovo, worked up a similar concept years ago that actually did.
What makes foldable phones so exciting isn’t only the act of opening and closing the hinged device. It’s also the fact that at this early stage, foldable phones are as fluid and flexible as their bending screens: They could be big, small or — if they ultimately fail to take root — nothing at all.