Smartphone market growth expectation is now postponed to 2021. The introduction of new foldable phones with innovative designs and 5G capabilities can only bring some interest in promoting replacement demand this year. Market implications due to coronavirus, high prices, lack of standardization, still evolving form factors and capabilities of foldable smartphones will limit market demand in 2020.
Smartphone market: Declining growth forecast
Brands were hoping to drive replacement demand with introduction of 5G products in a wide range of prices. However, the coronavirus outbreak has now reached a global level. Market uncertainties have heightened, creating disruptions both in demand and supply side. According to the latest forecast from IDC, the worldwide smartphone market is expected to decline 2.3% in 2020 with shipment volumes of just over 1.3 billion. The company conveys that component shortages, factory shutdowns, quarantine mandates, logistics and travel restrictions will create hindrances for smartphone vendors in producing handsets and rolling out new devices. Overall scenarios are expected to stabilize from Q3 this year. Global smartphone shipments are expected to return to growth in 2021 driven by accelerated 5G efforts.
Foldable Flip Phones: An evolving form factor
On March 11, 2020 Samsung announced the Galaxy Z Flip, its second foldable smartphone, a newly designed foldable flip phone based on flexible AMOLED display but with an ultrathin glass cover rather than plastic. The Galaxy Z Flip features a 6.7-inch 1080 x 2636 HDR dynamic AMOLED display. It also has an external 1.1-inch 112 x 300 superAMOLED display. This in-fold device with a new form factor is priced at $1,380 in U.S. The product looks like a large square device when folded and opens to a full smartphone. Z Flip can have the bottom half flat and the top half at 90° for watching content, taking photos or making calls. At a price of $1380, it is cheaper than Samsung’s first foldable with bigger screen size, the Galaxy Fold ( $1980) and Motorola Razr ($1499), but more expensive than the Galaxy S20 ($999.99).
Foldable Z Flip: Ultra thin glass cover
For the commercialization of reliable foldable smartphones the development of cover windows with high hardness and superior scratch resistance is very important. Z flip uses an ultrathin glass cover solution from Samsung Display rather than the flexible polyimide cover similar to what was used in Galaxy Fold. According to the company, ultrathin glass is more durable than polyimide for foldable OLEDs. The company has built the 30-micrometer thick glass to be both flexible and durable. Polymer is better at flexibility but it is less hard than glass, easier to scratch and has a higher potential to crease.
According to industry news sources, Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is using glass from Schott with special coating from Samsung Display. According to Schott, ultrathin glass is as thin as a strand of human hair yet extremely stable. It is the ideal solution for covering bendable displays. Ultrathin glass not only has to be reliably bendable, but it also has to be much thinner. Tough ultrathin glass can be scratch-resistant and bendable with a radius of just a few millimeters. In addition it can provide excellent barrier properties and protection from environmental elements.
Other glass companies such as Corning and AGC are also working on ultrathin bendable glass. Corning is targeting a 3 to 5 mm bend radius for its 0.1 mm thick glass, which could allow a foldable phone to be as thin as 6 mm to 10mm. The challenge is to keep tight 3 to 5 mm bend radius while increasing damage resistance of glass. That type of glass is expected to be ready in 1 to 2 years.
AGC developed an ultrathin chemically strengthened 0.07mm flexible glass, which makes it possible to use as a cover glass for foldable devices. Even though glass has the potential to provide ultimate foldable cover solution, it still needs development for a better ultra thin, durable, and optically advantage solutions that can bend at a tight radius hundreds of thousands times without damage.
Foldable Flip Phone: New design
Starting from 2020, foldable smartphones will be shifting more towards a new clamshell design away from the folding book type. Motorola has already launched its first foldable smartphone “Razr” in a clamshell form factor. After Samsung’s Z Flip, more brands are expected to join in.
For a foldable display, all the layers within the panel should be foldable, durable, and transparent with a total bending radius of less than 1.5 mm. Clamshell designs have smaller seams, hinges and foldable marks that can result in higher yield, lower cost, and longer usable life leading to a higher consumer acceptance rate. Clamshell designs with ultrathin glass like Samsung’s Z Flip can bring higher hardness, better scratch resistance compared to plastic cover film.
Samsung Display, BOE, Royole and AUO had dedicated foldable display capacity in 2019. LGD, CSOT and Visionox will join in 2020. Samsung, Royale and Huawei already have first generation foldable smartphones (in the $1300 to $2600 range). Higher prices, reliability and design issues had resulted in limited shipments in 2019. Xiaomi, TCL, Google and many others are also working on foldable phones.
Lower cost, higher reliability and longer life could help clamshell designs to gain higher acceptance in 2020 and drive demand especially in the second half of 2020. Component shortages, factory shut downs, implications due to coronavirus, and an uncertain economic outlook will create challenges for the smartphone market in 2020. New foldable products, 5G capabilities, innovative designs and evolving form factors can create interest from early adaptors driving demands. However, higher costs, high prices, a lack of standardization, and still evolving form factors and developing capabilities of foldable smartphones will limit market demand in 2020. (SD)
Sweta Dash is the founding president of Dash-Insights, a market research and consulting company specializing in the display industry. For more information, contact email@example.com or visit www.dash-insight.com