A report from ETNews claims that Samsung Display is ready to expand its foldable-display business and start selling to companies other than Samsung Electronics’ phone division. Flexible panels were previously exclusive to Samsung’s phone division, but the report says Samsung Display plans to sell 1 million panels this year in the open market. ETNews quotes a source saying “multiple Chinese smartphones markets” are working with Samsung and plan to ship devices in the second half of 2021.
A million panels isn’t a huge supply compared to the ~350 million smartphones sold annually, but that is about the size of the foldable market in these early days. Canalys’ last numbers said 1.74 million foldables were sold from September 2019 to June 2020, which represents the first generation of foldables, before the launch of the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Samsung hopes to see that number grow a lot in 2021, with ETNews reporting Samsung Display will supply 10 million foldable displays to the phone division.
It doesn’t sound like the third parties buying from Samsung will have a lot of wiggle room in terms of form factor. According to the report, Samsung is supplying two types of displays: one that folds across the horizontal axis like the Galaxy Z Flip, and one that folds across the vertical axis like the Galaxy Z Fold. The industry isn’t quite sure what a flexible display smartphone should look like, and at trade shows, various companies have pitched all sorts of wild form factors. There are concepts for rollable display smartphones, outward-folding displays like the Huawei Mate X, and tri-folding smartphones that fold up like a wallet or a brochure. It doesn’t sound like Samsung will be humoring any of those form factors just yet.
Not the normal way Samsung does business
This report signals an end of Samsung’s exclusivity period on its foldable display technology, which has been an exception to the way Samsung normally does business. Samsung Display and the Galaxy phone division are both under the “Samsung Electronics” label, but often the various divisions of Samsung treat each other like any other customer. If your goal is “sell as many phones as possible,” it would be a good strategy to keep any special technologies in house, but if you’re focused on making as much money as possible, it’s better to sell to the entire industry. As a whole conglomerate, Samsung makes more money selling iPhone parts to Apple than it does selling Galaxy Phones to consumers. We recently saw a good example of this “components-first” approach with the rise of faster-refresh-rate OLED smartphone displays, where OnePlus, Google, and others were using Samsung-made 90Hz OLED displays a generation before Samsung.
The foldable displays are special, though. Samsung Display says it invested six years and $130 million in R&D to bring foldable displays to market, and so far, the phone division has had exclusive access to the technology. Presumably, the plan was that Samsung Electronics would have a huge head start over the competition and would be the only company selling Foldable phones for a few years. Samsung’s plans didn’t work out, though. According to Korean prosecutors, Samsung’s foldable display technology was stolen in 2018 and sold to “two Chinese companies” that have never been officially named. A report from Nikkei Asia pegs China’s biggest display manufacturer, BOE, as a recipient of the stolen display technology, and that certainly seems plausible given that BOE is the closest thing Samsung has to competition in the foldable-display market.
BOE foldable displays power Samsung’s two biggest foldable rivals, the Huawei Mate X and the Moto Razr. Like we listed above, there are plenty of other companies that bring prototype foldable smartphones to trade shows, but as far as products that are actually brave enough to come to market, there are devices powered by Samsung and BOE and maybe one or two tiny boutique outlets like Royale. ETNews still qualifies Samsung as the only “mass market” flexible-display panel provider, a fine conclusion given that other devices seem to mostly be paper launches with either minimal distribution or constant stock problems. If you want to zoom in on the extremely small foldables segment, a report from industry tracker Display Supply Chain Consultants recently put Samsung’s 2020 foldable smartphone market share at 88 percent.