Samsung is having a party tomorrow with a couple of guests of honour: its foldable phones. Good probably see updated watches and headphones, but really, it’s a birthday party for the Z Fold and Z Flip. They’ve been around for years now, but last August they really hit their stride with the most mainstream models to date.
We’re probably not going to see any dramatic upgrades or shocking price drops this year, because Samsung doesn’t need to produce those thrills. It owns the foldable phone category, and it probably will be for a while. It’s a collapsible party with a guest list of one: Samsung.
Let’s not forget, the first iterations of the Fold and Flip were a bit half-baked: clunky, overpriced and not durable enough. But they got better. Last year’s Z Flip 3 and Z Fold 3 looked almost normal, with robust water resistance and better usability.
Meanwhile, Samsung’s other competitors seem stuck on early design iterations or don’t show up at all. LG threatened to market a rollable phone shortly before ceasing to manufacture mobile devices altogether. The Motorola Razr 2020 is overpriced, disappointing and overdue for an update. TCL talks about a great concept game but has yet to deliver a foldable that anyone can buy.
It’s a different story if you live in China, where Oppo and Huawei offer foldable devices, but they’re limited to that market. And I haven’t forgotten the Surface Duo (although almost everyone has – sorry, Dan). But the numbers don’t lie: in 2021 Samsung has shipped 10 million foldable devices, with a market share of 87%. It’s still a tiny chunk of the overall smartphone market, but it’s certainly something to celebrate if you’re Samsung.
Anyway, why Samsung? It’s a company that has leveraged its unique position to push the foldable experience as far as it has. On the one hand, he could afford to fail. The first the first Fold was an absolute disasterand the product that Samsung finally shipped was only slightly better. Throw, then unhook, then revive a niche experimental device is not cheap. Samsung apparently sells enough refrigerators to guarantee this sort of thing – a small company like TCL probably can’t take the same kinds of risks.
Samsung, as a company, also has the right philosophy to pave the way for foldables. You won’t see Apple launching a phone with an experimental new form factor and flimsy long-term prospects. He prefers to board when there is one sure thing. Google just figured out how to make a flagship phone that doesn’t bend and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to kick whoever does it. Samsung is ready to bet on something new and, above all, to stick to it during the first growing pains. And hey, at least none of the first foldables tended to catch fire.
All signs point to the Z Fold and Z Flip 4 being minor and uninspiring updates over their predecessors. And really, that’s to be expected. The company has just started dialing in the recipe for a mainstream foldable phone. Why revise it now?
Samsung’s early, sometimes lousy, lead means it can afford to roll a bit now. If and when competitors start to emerge over the next two years globally, they too will have to suffer from these clunky early iterations. It is a new category of products. There’s no playbook on how to build a good foldable phone like there is for the classic slab-style phone. Samsung’s approach isn’t the only way to go, but it’s the best way to get ahead while your competitors are all back on the starting line.
It won’t always be so lonely. Maybe Apple will join in a few years – claiming it invented folding phones on its own, naturally. There’s definitely room for Google, whenever it pops up, or any company that can figure out how to make a foldable that costs less than $1,000. But for now, go ahead and party like it’s your birthday, Samsung.