Samsung Unveils Foldable-Screen Smartphone - WSJ


SAN FRANCISCO—

Samsung Electronics
Co.

, suffering a handset sales slide, revealed a foldable-screen smartphone that folds like a book and opens up to tablet size.

At a developer showcase event on Wednesday, Samsung said the phone, which is 7.3 inches when opened, would be ready for mass production in the coming months. It boasts a second, smaller display on the outside—which it called a cover window—allowing users to check emails and perform other basic tasks when closed.

Samsung, which ships one of every five phones globally, is eyeing a splashy device to help lift sales, as consumers hold on to their handsets longer and lower-cost Chinese rivals gain strength. Last week, the world’s largest smartphone maker reported its third-quarter mobile profits had nose-dived by a third.

Global smartphone shipments fell 8% for the three months ended Sept. 30, the fourth straight quarter of declines, according to Strategy Analytics, which described the industry as being “effectively in a recession.” Samsung shipments, meanwhile, dropped even more at 13%.

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The Wall Street Journal reported in July that Samsung was developing a foldable-screen device targeted for a release early next year.

As the final design is still being decided, the South Korean technology giant showed off the foldable display—which it calls the “Infinity Flex”—with the lights dimmed. Justin Denison, a Samsung senior vice president of mobile product marketing, demonstrated on a prototype how the phone could run three apps simultaneously when opened.

“The Infinity Flex display is the foundation for the smartphone of tomorrow,” Mr. Denison said.

Foldable-screen phones are becoming a hotly contested race. At least four of Samsung’s rivals, including

Apple
Inc.

and Huawei Technologies Co., have sought patents for folding models. Last week, a tiny Chinese firm, Royole, unveiled the world’s first foldable-screen device, which boasts a 7.8-inch screen that can fold 180 degrees.

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The foldable-screen handset would shake up the basic design for smartphones, which have maintained a similar look for more than a decade. But analysts say a foldable, tablet-sized device could approach $2,000, so Samsung executives have acknowledged they need to produce compelling uses to justify the steep price.

The Suwon, South Korea-based company has held discussions with Netflix Inc. and YouTube, a unit of Google parent

Alphabet
Inc.,

on how to optimize content for a folding-screen device, the Journal reported last week.

The foldable-phone market, however, projects to initially be small: Strategy Analytics forecasts such handsets will represent just 1% of all smartphones sold next year and 4% in 2023.

Samsung also unveiled plans to open up Bixby, its homegrown virtual assistant, to third-party developers for the first time. Like

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Amazon.com
Inc.’s

Alexa, Bixby needs outside voice-app developers to create functions—which Samsung calls “capsules”—to popularize the technology. These capsules, which the Journal reported on last week, would allow users to give voice prompts to stream music, order pizza or hail a taxi.

A late comer to the virtual assistant race, Samsung’s Bixby enjoys an advantage over rivals because the company sells more than half a billion televisions, phones and home appliances a year. The company has pledged all its devices will have Bixby by 2020.

“A new generation of technology breakthroughs has opened the door at a pace we have never seen before,” said D.J. Koh, Samsung’s mobile chief.

Write to Timothy W. Martin at [email protected]

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