Marek's take

Google’s Android operating system and Apple’s iPhone and its iOS operating system played a key role in the rise of the 4G era. The creation of the Android and iOS ecosystems dramatically altered how consumers interacted with their devices and brought to life numerous applications not imagined possible before. In fact, the smartphone revolution of the 4G era is widely credited with the explosion of the “Gig” economy.”  The “Gig” economy made it feasible for consumers to download an app and order a ride, a meal, or even a handyman with just a couple of keystrokes.

The biggest innovation in 5G smartphones so far has been the introduction of flexible mobile phone screens. For example, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Z Flip in 5G and the Galaxy Z Fold 2, which are both folding smartphones. The manufacturer has said that it plans to release four more folding devices this year. Likewise, Motorola Mobility released a foldable Razr smartphone in 2020 and also just unveiled a ThinkPad laptop with a folding screen.

But foldables aren’t the only thing generating excitement. Both South Korea’s LG Electronics and China’s TCL Technology Group have said they are working on a rollable smartphone, which will allow users to unroll and expand the screen area of the smartphone while it’s in use and then roll it back up to a more condensed size when not in use. Although that sounds pretty compelling, analysts say that it’s critical that the final product is durable and undergoes rigorous testing before being released to the public.

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Noticeably, Apple is still on the sidelines when it comes to these rollable, foldable smartphone designs. The company, instead, is still producing the basic “bar-shaped” smartphone form factor that can be held in one hand.

And while Apple currently hasn’t released a foldable screen smartphone, that doesn’t mean it isn’t working on one in its laboratories. Analysts note that when Apple does release a new product, it is usually polished. And if Apple jumps on board that could be the catalyst needed to transform future smartphones.

5G coverage must be more pervasive

Is it possible that 5G networks, which are in the process of being deployed nationwide, will experience a similar renaissance thanks to new innovations in 5G devices? According to Avi Greengart, founder of Techsponential, an analysis and advisory firm, the short answer is no, at least for now.

While these rollable and foldable 5G smartphones are interesting and innovative, 5G network coverage is still an issue. 5G coverage in the U.S. is still dependent upon geography and operator. As we’ve seen from various network testing reports from Ookla, RootMetrics and Opensignal, operator 5G network speeds and capabilities vary dramatically depending upon operator and the spectrum bands they are using for 5G.

“Until the networks are more fully built out, it’s complicated and uncertain whether you will see a difference between 4G and 5G in the U.S.,” Greengart said. “For now, 5G devices — whether the screens are fixed, rolling or folding — are not relevant to that.”  

However, Greengart said that in some markets such as China and South Korea, device upgrades are being driven by advances offered by 5G networks. “In China, if you are making a mid-tier or better phone without 5G, you are not selling it.”

Price is another factor to consider. Currently, Samsung and Motorola’s foldable phones cost between $1,000 and $1,500. “The price points are relatively high,” Greengart said. “They need to come down to be affordable and attainable.”

And while that will likely happen over time, Greengart also stresses that these foldable phones need to be more durable. If consumers are going to pay a premium price for a smartphone, they want to be able to use it every day without having any issues.

But that doesn’t mean that rollable, foldable smartphones are just a passing trend. Greengart said that he thinks these devices will gain some traction with consumers, particularly once the price point drops.

However, he also believes that the bar-shaped smartphone is here to stay. “It’s the workhorse,” he said. “It’s simple, less expensive and has fewer moving parts.”



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