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Samsung stretches foldable phone influence even though it’s still a lonely race

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The new Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4 and Galaxy Z Flip4 are here, and there’s one thing they don’t have to contend with. Competition. Unlike their conventional siblings. With both the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4, Samsung has done the expected – consolidated on what they had with previous year’s editions, and made them better where they needed to be better. Cameras, for instance. Robustness dialed up a notch.

The Galaxy Z Fold4 is sleeker and lighter than its predecessor, and every bit of this will make ergonomics better for a phone that doubles up as a tablet. This is powered by Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chip with up to 12GB RAM and 1TB storage, IPX8 water resistance and a new 50-megapixel camera that leads the troika.

Also Read:Bring home and binge-watch with the new Samsung Crystal 4K TV

The big change with the software is it’ll run One UI 4.1.1. based on Android 12L (this OS is made specifically for tablets), which also allows Samsung to add a taskbar with your most used apps to the bottom of the screen (much like on a PC or an iPad), for convenience. Global pricing starts around $1799 and we don’t expect the India pricing to be entirely dissimilar from last year (prices started around 1,71,999)

The Galaxy Z Flip4 is also all about improvements, including Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1 chip, slimmer hinge, a thinner design, stronger folding screen and a bigger battery. This will be priced upwards of $999 while its predecessor in India started out with a price tag around 95,999.

How big is the foldable phone market?

There can be some debate over the numbers, but this is very much a growing category. Within that, Samsung claims to have sold almost 10million foldable smartphones worldwide in 2021. A number that represents a 300% growth compared with 2020.

“I predict this fast-paced growth will continue. We are reaching the moment where these foldable devices are becoming widespread and staking a bigger claim in the overall smartphone market,” said TM Roh, President & Head of MX Business at Samsung, earlier.

Research firm IDC instead pegged the overall 2021 foldable phone shipments at 7.1million units, of which Samsung has by far the biggest but not absolute share. Their prediction is that more phone makers will have to take this space seriously, one not to be ignored.

“Despite their small market share, foldables represent a major opportunity for vendors. From the consumer point of view, foldables represent the most innovative visual change to happen to smartphones,” says IDC, in the latest Worldwide Foldable Smartphone Forecast.

They estimate the 2025 foldable phone shipments to touch 27.6million units, but that’ll still be less than 2% of the total estimated smartphone shipments at the time.

It is perplexing, where is the competition?

There’s a reason Samsung didn’t need to do much in terms of taking a risk with the Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4, or make an attempt to try something away from the formula (and it is one that works very nicely, in both fold and flip formats) they were already working with. Samsung’s competition hasn’t turned up, even now. Not within the Android space. And not Apple, as yet.

But where are they all? In the last couple of years, many Android phone brands have talked the talk, but never even gotten close to wearing sneakers and walking the walk. Xiaomi, for instance, made the Mi Mix Fold and showed it to the world early last year. Not to be heard from again. The company is still at it, expected to unveil the Mix Fold 2 5G anytime now. Whether it figures prominently in the launch roadmap globally, or in consumer shortlists, is anyone’s guess.

Then there is Motorola, which is akin to some carmakers, hoped reviving an iconic name will reap the rewards. It must have been a cruel lesson to learn subsequently, that times often change with permanency.

The Razr 5G flip phone launched in late 2020 hasn’t since seen an update, or a successor. Even then, it was no match for the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip (the early 2020 launch) and definitely blown out of the water by the Galaxy Z Flip 3 in 2021. That would also land it in the “overpriced” bin.

Late last year, Oppo showed the world the Find N foldable phone. It then won some design innovation awards somewhere and went on sale in China only. There was hope that the more friendly face of OnePlus may be leveraged to rebadge this foldable phone for India and some other markets (Europe and the US, mostly), but that never transpired – instead, attention shifted to the Oppo and OnePlus merger, and the distraction of how much will OnePlus’ OxygenOS software look like Oppo’s software. We don’t have a definitive answer for that either.

In China, Huawei also has the Mate Xs 2 foldable phone, but then again, the company has largely been reduced to a pariah in the global tech circuit. There is no access to Google’s Play Services on any of its Android phones in markets outside of China.

Is there no innovation without competition? Samsung proves otherwise

It is often said competition is good for the market, for consumers and drives innovation. All familiar marketing chatters. Samsung has proven otherwise. For all the theoretical assumptions that lack of competition may have led to a boring space, Samsung hasn’t at all slowed down on the foldable phone and flip phone formats.

It doesn’t require too much of a strain to go back to the summer of 2020 when the first Galaxy Fold phone emerged with a slew of quality issues. Including the screen. And the incomplete messaging about the protective layer on top.

The company went back to the drawing board and seemingly started afresh. Because since then, including the corrective update that was rolled out subsequently, the Galaxy Z series of phones have gone from strength to strength in the years since.

So much so, the 2022 edition of the Galaxy Z Fold4 has been chiseled enough to not only make this the lightest amongst its elder siblings, but also space for much better cameras and the most powerful Qualcomm chip there is.

Do Apple and Google hold any trump cards?

There has been speculation for a while now that Apple will launch a foldable iPhone at some point. Beyond that, there is just more speculation, bordering on the ridiculous. Yet, it will happen at some point. But unlikely it’ll be this year. Apple perhaps will wait for the supply chain shortages to ease out before directing any of the resources to a device category that’ll likely cost a lot and not exactly return big volumes in the first time of asking.

The idea of a Pixel foldable phone, made by Google, is tantalising. But whether that is delivered this year, is anyone’s guess. There have been subtle hints about it being in the works, but it’ll all depend on when Google is ready to roll it out at a competitive price.

Samsung’s choices and competition’s early generation niggles

Samsung had the choice to make use of all the luxury of space and time at its disposal to select either side of the coin – incremental improvements or try a completely new way of making foldable or flip phones. It’s chosen the former, and that may be a smart choice, considering this will give it a lead that’ll make it nigh impossible for late bloomers to close up to. For years.

For any competition that may eventually turn up this year or the next, it would inevitably be welcomed by a generation or two of troublesome issues till they themselves have foldable phones that are genuinely ready for prime time. Samsung has all the time to cruise and coast, but it’s doing the opposite. Making the best of an empty racetrack.

    vishal mathur

    Vishal Mathur is Technology Editor for Hindustan Times. When not making sense of technology, he often searches for an elusive analog space in a digital world.
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