Samsung's flawed foldable phone could serve as a cautionary tale

Key Points
  • Samsung is delaying the release of its near-$2,000 foldable phone after reviewers flagged screen issues.
  • Now the attention may turn to Huawei and other smartphone makers with foldable ambitions.
  • Experts say Samsung's rivals will need to think carefully about how they launch their own foldable devices.
Samsung's Galaxy Fold exhibited during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Joan Cros | NurPhoto | Getty Images

It's easy to see why Samsung initially wanted to push out its first-ever folding phone so soon after handing it to reviewers.

With Chinese competitor Huawei making known its own ambition to launch such a device, it was unsurprising the South Korean tech giant would want to stay ahead of the curve.

But that move proved problematic for the world's top manufacturer of smartphones. Reviewers who got an early look at Samsung's Galaxy Fold have already reported issues with the screens breaking.

Samsung subsequently said it will delay the release of the near-$2,000 Galaxy Fold past the original April 26 launch date. It said it will announce a new release date "in the coming weeks."

Now the attention may turn to other smartphone makers with foldable ambitions. And that might not necessarily be a good thing, according to experts.

Huawei is expected to sell its pricier $2,600 Mate X to customers later this year. The phone is a little different to Samsung's. It folds out backward so that, when closed, there are screens on both sides.

As one prominent tech reviewer, Marques Brownlee, points out on YouTube: "I am now way more skeptical about Huawei Mate X, which I thought looked incredible, but now I'm kind of concerned about that folding display being on the outside."

Peter Richardson, research director for tech strategies at Counterpoint Research, echoes Brownlee's concern. He told CNBC Huawei's approach makes its foldable's screen "even more exposed." A spokesperson for Huawei declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.

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One common issue for reviewers was the Galaxy Fold's display giving out once users started peeling off what they thought was simply a sheet of protective film. It turns out, according to Samsung, that the layer is not actually meant to be taken off.

But then others — including CNBC's Todd Haselton — did not remove this layer, and the screen still began flickering, at times becoming completely unusable.

Then there's Xiaomi, which has teased a phone that folds backwards from a tablet into a phone that can be held with one hand, a feat that could be even more difficult to implement for mass production.

Are foldable phones ready?

Counterpoint's Richardson says other industry players with plans for folding phones will need to "think very carefully about how they go forward" after all the issues Samsung's device faced.

"The big question now is whether foldable phones are ready for primetime," Francisco Jeronimo, associate vice president for European devices at IDC, told CNBC.

Jeronimo says it was a "wise move" on Samsung's part to postpone the release date beyond the initial timing, and that it was worth asking whether Huawei may look to delay the Mate X launch.

"We know that other brands are working on foldable displays to be launched this year," he said. "And what everyone needs to make sure is that these things work properly."

A look at the Samsung Galaxy Fold phone features, before it broke

While concerns remain over whether foldable smartphones will be ready for public release this year, experts generally agree that the technology is still in its infancy and that the long-term benefits of such devices will outweigh any temporary hiccups along the way.

Another issue is how quickly the tech will catch on with customers. Research shows consumers are holding onto their phones for much longer, with little incentive to upgrade given the sky-high prices of the likes of Apple's iPhone X range and Samsung's Galaxy S10.

Experts say the next few years will likely only see early adopters and people with money to spare buying foldables. Then, in the next three to five years, IDC's Jeronimo says, "that's when we will start seeing growth in foldable phones."