[News] Can Foldable Phones Become Lifeline for the Declining Global Smartphone Market?

2023-11-07 Consumer Electronics editor

The global smartphone market has seen a continuous decline for nine consecutive quarters, with only the foldable phone category remaining resilient and maintaining growth. Android smartphone manufacturers seem to view this category as a lifeline, having released a total of 13 new foldable phones in the past three months, setting a record for the number of new foldable phones introduced in half a year.

The intensified release of foldable phone models not only reflects the sense of urgency among smartphone manufacturers but also signifies a shift towards foldable technology in the mobile industry.

Currently, the foldable phone market is not as well-established as the traditional flat-screen market, presenting opportunities and variables. All Android manufacturers aim to leverage foldable phones to enhance their market positioning, achieve high-end differentiation, and engage in distinctive competition with Apple.

In fact, during the third quarter, there were subtle changes in the landscape of the foldable phone market in China according to IJIWEI’s report. Huawei, which once dominated the foldable phone market, has seen its market share decline. OPPO and Honor have managed to surpass Huawei in terms of sales volume in the flip-fold and single-product categories.

Next year, Huawei and Samsung plan to introduce more competitively priced foldable phones, and other Android manufacturers are expected to follow suit, driving accelerated expansion in the foldable phone market.

13 New Foldable Phones Launched in 3 Months

In the latter half of this year, smartphone manufacturers including Honor, OPPO, Xiaomi, Samsung, Huawei and Transsion, have been on a roll, releasing a remarkable 13 new foldable phones within just three months. This surge in foldable phone launches has almost doubled the number of foldable devices introduced in the first half of the year.

Each smartphone manufacturer has focused on different aspects of foldable phones. Honor has been particularly aggressive in the foldable phone market, introducing three new models in just four months, constantly pushing the boundaries of thinness. In July, Honor managed to reduce the thickness of foldable phones to the millimeter era with a body thickness of 9.9mm.

In September, the Honor V Purse, an outward folding phone, had a body thickness of 8.6mm in its folded state and weighed only 214g, once again setting a new record for slim foldable phones in the market. In October, the Honor Magic Vs2 weighed 229g, refreshing the record for slim large-sized inward folding phones.

On the other hand, OPPO and Xiaomi have emphasized the imaging performance of their foldable phones. In addition, Samsung, Huawei, Transsion, OnePlus, and other manufacturers have each introduced innovative models like the Galaxy Z Flip 5/Fold 5, Samsung W24/W24 Flip, OnePlus Open, Huawei Mate X5, and PHANTOM V Flip 5G, incorporating cutting-edge technology into foldable phones and significantly enhancing the foldable phone experience. This surge in foldable phone innovation has become one of the standout features in this year’s smartphone market.

Reasons for the Proliferation of Foldable Phones

Recent intense launches of new foldable phones by smartphone manufacturers reflect their strong sense of urgency in the Android market.

Global smartphone markets have been persistently sluggish, declining for nine consecutive quarters due to factors like inflation, market saturation, and longer upgrade cycles. Traditional flat smartphones are no longer able to drive sustained market growth, and the smartphone market is in need of new growth engines.

Foldable phones, with their differentiated form and innovative experiences, have the potential to stimulate consumer upgrades, and smartphone manufacturers have high hopes for them, leading to the frequent release of new foldable phone models.

Currently, foldable phones are considered high-end products, and the intense launch of new foldable phone models by Android smartphone manufacturers is aimed at achieving brand premiumization and establishing differentiation from Apple.

In an effort to break through the high-end market stronghold that Apple has established, Android smartphone manufacturers, led by Samsung, have not only upgraded their high-end flat smartphones but have also been actively promoting foldable phone innovations, different from the iPhone 15 series. They aim to stimulate consumer upgrades and attract more high-end users who value large-screen experiences.

Price Key to Boosting Foldable Smartphone Penetration

In recent months, Android smartphone manufacturers have been consistently releasing new foldable phone models, driving up foldable phone sales and contributing to increased market penetration in the high-end smartphone segment during the latter half of the year.

Supply chain sources have also revealed that Samsung is planning to bring foldable phones to the mid-range market next year, further reducing price barriers and making foldable phones more accessible to a broader range of consumers.

This year, the lowest price for foldable phones has already dropped to 3,659 yuan (RMB), setting a new record. In the upcoming year, more manufacturers will introduce higher-value foldable phone products, thus accelerating the broader adoption of foldable phones.

TrendForce believes that the driving force behind the foldable market’s expansion is the reduced costs and the expansion strategies of Chinese brands.

Looking at TrendForce’s estimated numbers , by 2023, shipments of foldable smartphones could skyrocket to an impressive 18.3 million units, marking a 43% YoY surge. However, this only captures a slim 1.6% of the year’s total smartphone market. Fast forward to 2024, a 38% growth is anticipated, translating to a hefty 25.2 million units and nudging the market share up to 2.2%.

Looking at the medium to long term, TrendForce believes the expansion of the foldable smartphone market is inevitable. By 2027, shipments could soar to a whopping 70 million units, seizing around 5% of the global smartphone market.

At the same time, foldable phone manufacturers are exploring new product forms and driving advancements in end-user applications. While there are certain limitations in terms of size for dual-foldable screen phones, many companies have already started working on triple-foldable screen products.

Recent reports from industry insiders suggest that Huawei’s development of a triple-foldable screen phone is progressing smoothly and may be ready for launch before March next year. It’s expected that two triple-foldable screen phones will be introduced in 2024.

On the other hand, Apple’s strategy for foldable devices differs from many Android phone manufacturers, as they are more focused on mature products and not in a hurry to release foldable phones.

According to TrendForce’s research, to date, Apple’s foray into foldables has been tepid due to Apple’s unwavering obsession with user experience.

Persistent challenges with foldable tech—think panel evenness and hinge design—might be holding them back. Still, achieving perfection with larger foldable panels is somewhat simpler than their smaller counterparts. The possibility for Apple to leapfrog right into medium-sized foldable products – like laptops or tablets – still remains.

(Photo credit: Phantom)