Samsung Galaxy Fold

Courtesy of Samsung

BARCELONA—I spent the better part of the week at Mobile World Congress hearing about what’s to come with 5G. But faster networks, no matter how important, still can’t compete with the promise of a good gadget, especially with tech fans starving for the next big device.

So even as tech execs hyped the future of 5G to all who would listen, the crowds jammed into Hall 3 of the Fira Gran Via exhibition center to get a more tangible glimpse of the future: foldable phones.

The scene was reminiscent of the Louvre, where a constant stream of tourists ram up against the glass-encased Mona Lisa, snapping away at the masterpiece with their smartphone cameras. In Barcelona, the star attractions, the Galaxy Fold from
Samsung Electronics

(ticker: 005930.South Korea) and the Mate X from Huawei Technologies, were equally off limits.

Samsung and Huawei view the devices as the most significant change to the wireless industry since the first-ever smartphones. While recent generations of phones have fought over incremental changes like better cameras and faster processors, the foldable phone is built on the view that a phone’s physical form remains as important as the latest apps and software.

The promise of 5G is pushing phone makers to finally rethink the decade-old smartphone form factor,
Qualcomm

(QCOM) President Cristiano Amon told Barron’s in a briefing on the show floor not far from the foldable phone exhibits.

“In every transition in tech—from 3G to 4G to today—the network was ready but not the devices,” Amon said. “This time, the devices are ahead of the network. It’s not that the form factor of foldables is for show; what 5G brings in streaming, gaming, and work productivity requires a larger screen, and it allows a phone to function as a laptop.

“The form of the phone meets the function of 5G,” he added.

Ericsson

(ERIC) Chief Financial Officer Carl Mellander struck a similar theme. As the telecom infrastructure changes for 5G, so too will the devices—foldable or not. “We’ve entered a window of innovation for smartphones,” he said.

Even retailers are getting bullish about the foldable future. “We’re also excited to watch the foldable phones emerge over the next several months,”
Best Buy

(BBY) CEO Hubert Joly told investors during the company’s earnings call this past week.

Following my time in Barcelona, here’s how I would handicap the current foldable race.

The Early Leaders

Samsung got a jump on the big conference by introducing the Galaxy Fold in San Francisco, a week before Mobile World Congress. The Fold starts as a 4.6-inch display that converts into a 7.3-inch tablet. That’s essentially an iPhone 8 transforming into an iPad Mini. The technology was cheered, but the $1,980 price wasn’t.

The Fold is slated to launch in the U.S. on April 26, but no one was trying the device in Barcelona. A rep said the company is currently focused on its latest line of traditional smartphones, the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10+, which will be in stores on March 8.

Samsung says it spent years designing its foldable entry. A new plastic display and hinge enable the screen to collapse onto itself, a system that Samsung says is “built to last.” And while its price may make some consumers blanch, Samsung anticipates a strong wave of first adopters.

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“Innovation excites people, and consumers have never been more educated about what they want in technology,” Justin Denison, senior vice president of mobile phone product marketing at Samsung.

Huawei’s $2,600 foldable phone has front and back displays—6.6 inches and 6.3 inches—that unwrap into an 8-inch tablet. The bright display impressed in an up-close demo, though Huawei wouldn’t let us get our hands on it.

For months, top Huawei executive Richard Yu has said the company could become the world’s No. 1 smartphone maker by 2020. (Huawei is currently No. 3 but eating away at Samsung and
Apple
’s
(AAPL) leading market share.

Many bendable phones are expected over the next year, with
Xiaomi

(1810.Hong Kong),
Lenovo Group

(0992.Hong Kong), Oppo Electronics, and
Motorola Solutions

(MSI) among the companies likely working on new designs.

The Wild Card

Apple, which routinely redefines an established market, was granted a patent for a folding device in 2014, and its entry seems inevitable now that Samsung and Huawei have made their moves.

Don’t discount the allure of Apple design. Flashback to early 2007, when Apple redefined the smartphone market with the iPhone. As much as Steve Jobs advocated what the device could do, he told me during a personal demo and interview after the event that the distinctive bezel shape was also a selling point.

It’s no secret the global smartphone market has been in a funk. Unit shipments were flat, at 408 million, in the December quarter because high-models just aren’t selling, according to Gartner. Lack of innovation isn’t helping matters.

Phone makers may now finally be acknowledging that they got carried away with lighter and thinner phones at the expense of usability and innovation. Are consumers prepared to carry a slightly heavier foldable phone in exchange for getting a tabletlike screen? We’ll soon find out. For now, though, Samsung has yet to disclose the weight of its Galaxy Fold.

As Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer at
AT&T

(T), said: “Who knows? Maybe we’ll see a comeback of the phone holster.”  

Write to Jon Swartz at jonathan.swartz@dowjones.com

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