In recent years, the world of smartphones has witnessed a ground-breaking evolution – the introduction of foldable phones. These innovative devices have captured the imagination of tech enthusiasts and consumers alike, offering a unique combination of style, functionality, and convenience. But where did the concept of foldable phones originate, and how did they become a reality?

The Origin of Foldable Phones

The concept of foldable mobile devices can be traced back to the early 2000s when companies like Nokia experimented with folding screens. However, these early attempts were limited by the available technology and were never commercialised. It wasn't until the late 2010s when the idea began to gain increased traction.

Before any of the well-known, mainstream brands/manufacturers became involved in the world of foldable phones, the Royole FlexPai was unveiled in October 2018. Royole are a Chinese brand founded in 2012 and while you’re unlikely to have ever heard of them, they will always hold the distinction of unveiling the first foldable phone.

With that said, just because you’re the first to do something, doesn’t necessarily make you good at it. The FlexPai was undoubtedly a foldable phone, but there isn’t much else positive that you could say about it. The build quality was questionable, at best, and the software used by the FlexPai was rather clunky, so while you can give Royole the credit of unveiling and releasing the first foldable phone, the FlexPai certainly hasn’t gone down in the history books for any other reason.

A couple of weeks after Royole had unveiled the FlexPai (but before it was released), we had perhaps the most important development in foldable phone technology thus far, when at their annual developer conference in November 2018, Samsung unveiled their new Infinity Flex Display with a working prototype of a device that could fold in half. They were confident that they would be able to mass produce this within a matter of months.

The Turning Point - Samsung Unveil the Galaxy Fold

Just a few months later in February of 2019, Samsung unveiled the Samsung Galaxy Fold, their first official foray into the foldable phone market, capturing the attention of the world and helping to ignite the foldable phone trend. As with their Infinity Flex Display prototype, the Galaxy Fold featured an outer 4.6-inch display, with the inner 7.5-inch screen size being the real draw of the device.

The Galaxy Fold was due to be released on the 26th of April 2019, but just a few days prior to release, Samsung had to announce a delay due to durability concerns that arose from review units, which they then had to recall. The first Samsung Galaxy Fold was eventually released in September 2019.

Huawei Join the Foldable Race

It wasn’t just Samsung that were attempting to seize the foldable phone market early as manufacturers were experimenting with different form factors, folding mechanisms, and display technologies. This intense competition fuelled innovation and accelerated the development of foldable phones.

Less than a week after the Unpacked event that saw Samsung unveil the Galaxy Fold, Huawei were quick to introduce the world to their first foldable device – the Huawei Mate X. Much like the Galaxy Fold, however, Huawei also ended up delaying the Mate X due to similar durability concerns. Ultimately, the Mate X was only released in China in November 2019.

With the Fold and Mate X being unveiled in the space of a week, hype started to build around foldable devices, especially as the Mate X approached the larger display in a largely different way. The Mate X wrapped a single screen around the full body of the phone, meaning that whether the device was open or closed, you’d be using the same folding screen.

The Clamshell Revival

Motorola took a slightly different approach and looked to capitalise on consumer familiarity with their iconic RAZR flip phone from the early 2000s with a new Motorola RAZR to test the waters of the viability of foldable screens.

When open, the RAZR was designed to look like a standard Android handset but offer increased portability when closed/folded. The concept was a call back to more traditional flip style phones like the original RAZR, in a world where smartphones were only becoming larger, the increased portability was a welcome factor for a section of consumers. 

4 days after the release of the Motorola RAZR and Samsung were back, this time to announce the Galaxy Z Flip – and then made it available for purchase just a few days later. The Z Flip, however, was not without controversy of its own. One of the marketing messages which accompanied the device was that it was the first handset with a foldable glass display. While, strictly speaking, that was true, said screen was also covered with a plastic layer, and thus it was labelled as somewhat misleading from Samsung as a result. With that said, the Z Flip did become a commercial success for Samsung, with the initial stock run selling out extremely quickly.

The Second Attempts

After the initial run of the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X, it was all but inevitable that Samsung and Huawei would revise their design for a second generation. In February 2020, exactly one year after the Huawei Mate X was unveiled, Huawei announced its successor, the Mate XS. This featured several improvements over its predecessor, but perhaps most notably was the improved hinge design, making the device more robust and easier to unfold – Huawei were keen not to replicate the durability issues that had plagued both the Mate X and the Galaxy Fold. 

The Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 also released in 2020 and touted a refined, second-generation hinge in an aim to help alleviate any durability concerns. Featuring a larger front cover display (6.2” compared to 4.6” on the original Fold) and improved split screen software, the Z Fold 2 was a well-received improvement over the original model, even though it came with a hefty £1,799 price tag at launch.

Other Manufacturers Try Their Hand

While Samsung and Huawei were cementing their place in the market, other manufacturers were also beginning to try their hand at foldable devices. In 2021, both Xiaomi and Oppo tried their hands with the Xiaomi Mi MIX Fold and the Oppo Find N, respectively. The Oppo Find N felt a lot sturdier than it’s Galaxy counterparts at that stage and, also, felt a lot more pleasant to use while folded. The problem being, at least in the west, was that the device was only available in China.

With the Mi MIX Fold, Xiaomi took a different approach. One area lacking within foldable devices up to this point had been the camera capabilities. The Mi MIX Fold featured a 108MP main camera and used a custom processor for image processing, meaning any image taken by this device was of greater quality than any other foldable device so far. 2021 also saw Samsung release the Z Fold3 and Z Flip3, both of which were commercially more successful than their predecessors.

Recent Developments & Continued Generations

We’ve since seen additional generations of the Z Fold and Z Flip from Samsung, with the 4th and 5th generations in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The Huawei Mate XS 2, released in 2022, was the thinnest smartphone with a foldable screen and, unlike the earlier Mate X, is available outside of China. Xiaomi have also released further generations of the MIX Fold with second and third generations in 2022 and 2023, with a 4th generation expected to be unveiled later this year.

The key technological advancements that made foldable phones more possible were the advancing development of flexible displays and durable hinges. Foldable displays are made using advanced OLED technology, which allows screens to be bent and folded without breaking or deteriorating in quality. Complementing the display technology, hinges are engineered to withstand repeated folding and unfolding, ensuring the longevity of the devices.

As the technology has developed over recent years, we’ve seen the latest foldable devices shift more into the mainstream than previous generations. The most recent Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Z Fold5, for instance, are certainly more well-known and popular amongst the general consumer base than their predecessors. With the Z Fold 6 and Z Flip 6 expected to be available later this year, it will be exciting to see what improvements Samsung will make this time around.

The Future of Foldable Phones

As technology continues to advance, the future of foldable phones looks promising. Manufacturers are striving to refine and perfect the design and functionality of these devices, aiming to make them more affordable, durable, and practical for everyday use. Experts predict that foldable phones will become more widespread in the market, eventually establishing themselves as a mainstream category in the smartphone industry.

With Samsung currently leading the foldable phone market, Apple as a contrast is, at present, a notable omission. It seems highly probable that at some stage in the coming years, Apple will release their own foldable device to capitalise on their growing popularity, hopefully leading to further rapid developments in foldable phones over the coming years.

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