ZTE to Launch Folding Smartphone Ahead of Apple, Samsung: Reports

Samsung and Apple have also been working on similar designs, but news reports indicate that China's ZTE could announce a folding smartphone at an upcoming Oct. 17 event.

Foldable Smartphone

China's ZTE could soon be launching a folding smartphone that splits its screen into two parts, but when unfolded creates what looks like a small tablet, according to several recent reports and rumors.

An early report on Sept. 5 through news tipster Evan Blass said ZTE is soon planning to unveil a dual-screen Axon Multy handset that will unfold into a 6.8-inch display.

The dual 1,920 x 1,080 displays on the front and rear of the handset will meet at a central hinge, while the device will feature a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of memory and 32GB of internal storage, he wrote in a related story by VentureBeat. It will also include a 3,120mAh battery, 20-megapixel camera and will be sold at least to start exclusively through AT&T priced at about $650.

Folding displays have been a goal of several mobile phone makers in the past few years as they continue to seek ways of differentiating their products. Samsung, Apple and others have been working on folding or flexible displays with various degrees of success.

Lending weight to the rumors is that ZTE is planning an event in New York City on Oct. 17 to make an unspecified product announcement, but the company isn't providing any early details.

For the last several years, smartphone sales in the United States have flattened as the market has become saturated with handsets of various designs from multiple manufacturers. As a result many mobile market analysts have said that it will take significant innovations to stimulate sales enough to return to double digit growth in the U.S. any time soon since today's smartphones already include just about every feature users want in their handsets.

With that in mind, eWEEK asked several mobile analysts whether folding displays could be a market changing feature that could reinvigorate smartphone sales in the U.S. and abroad where sales have been flat.

"It's interesting for sure, but ZTE moving the needle on design is difficult," said Lynette Luna of research firm GlobalData. "It simply doesn't have the brand cachet outside of China that Samsung and Apple do. I see Samsung coming to market with something like this before Apple, which is very careful about its design choices," Luna said.

At the same time, "this type of form factor would require a fundamental shift in the way people use their smartphones," said Luna. "I don't see mass adoption overnight. I think it would become another segment of the smartphone market, like we've seen with the phablet," she said.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, agrees. "The thing about previous, game-changing technologies is that they either engaged entirely new customer groups or enabled existing customers to do new thing," he said. "Split-screen technologies relate more to the latter point but their impact isn't likely to be earth-shaking."

Another problem that could affect the feature's rapid adoption is if it makes the phones too thick to easily carry, he added. "Smartphone innovation is at least partly driven by slimness and elegance of design so offering a product that more or less doubles its thickness could get dinged for 'brick-like' design."

Maribel Lopez, principal analyst for Lopez Research, said a folding design could be one way that ZTE could grab sales and market share from other vendors. "I think a foldable device would be a great breakthrough to get people to upgrade," she said. "Right now, there is a certain ho-hum in the market" about current smartphone designs, she said.

The problem for ZTE, though, could be that buyers might want to see this technology from the giants, including Samsung and Apple, said Lopez. "If ZTE announced a foldable it would create buzz, but I don't think the market would move until Apple or Samsung or Google announced a foldable phone."

Another analyst, Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting Group, was more upbeat about the possibility.

"There isn't a whole lot of differentiation in phones these days, but being able to fold your two-screen phone and keep roughly in the same size form factor? In my mind, this is a game changer," Olds told eWEEK. "I'm thinking about how well I'd be able to run multiple applications at the same time if I had twice the screen real estate – that would certainly change my usage of my phone."

A folding display could be the next "must-have" feature in the future, he added. "I can see a lot of ways that vendors could optimize all of that new screen real estate and use it to convince customers that they have to have a folding phone."

It's innovation, however, isn't completely overwhelming, he said. "I don't think it's quite the same level of advancement as we saw with the first iPhones in 2007, but this could be a very big deal."