Internet & Tech

Around the bend

Xiaomi claims first with foldable phone screen, riling rival Royole

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Royole’s bendy smartphone

The world’s first mobile receiver with a touchscreen, known as IBM Simon, made its debut in 1992. But it was not until 2007, when Apple revolutionised the touchscreen interface for handsets, that cell phones became ‘smart’ and were integrated into everyday life.

The next big breakthrough that tech analysts have long predicted: a flexible display that allows a tablet-sized screen to be folded so the device approximates to the pocket size of a typical smartphone.

Samsung last year released an image of its own version, while last month two Chinese manufacturers raced to claim bragging rights over leadership in ‘foldy phones’.

Xiaomi’s president Lin Bin boasted on social media that the tech company had successfully created the world’s first phone with double-folding features (i.e. both sides of the device can be bent like flaps). The post immediately riled smaller rival Royole Technologies, which considers foldables its core business.

“So a phone assembler that does not even have its own patented display technology claimed that it has already mastered the expertise of a foldable screen – simply because it had bought from others a concept product that has yet to be mass produced?” fumed Jason Fan, Royole’s vice president. “Companies like this fly high in China as long as they sell the right concepts, but they would not be respected and recognised internationally because all they know is copying without being innovative, and worse still, making false claims”, he added scornfully.

Fan noted that apart from Royole – which has marketed its 7.8-inch Royole FlexPai phone (at Rmb8,999 or $1,320) since October – only Samsung and LG Electronics are capable of making flexi-screen gadgets.

In its defence, Xiaomi pointed out that the product in question was co-developed with a supplier, but reiterated that the double-folding design (Royole’s is single-folding) was the first of its type.

At least the bickering has put little-known Royole in the spotlight, as people are curious to know how the six year-old start-up managed to be first to actually sell foldables. “Their technology is still being trialled, and hasn’t been tested for mass production yet”, an industry source told Xincaijing, a zimeiti blog. The source noted that the FlexPai model will only be delivered on-demand, two to three months after the date of order.

Citing an investment prospectus, Xincaijing also suggested that Royole is struggling to meet its goal of producing 50 million bendy screens a year. “Royole had tried to raise funds from Huawei before, but the deal did not materialise because its technology was not considered up to standard,” it continued, noting that the company has been through nine rounds of financing reaching a valuation of more than $5 billion.

Founded by Stanford-educated engineer Bill Liu Zihong, Royole is headquartered in California but has its production base in Shenzhen.

Liu’s product did make it to this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but was not favourably received. “The biggest failure of the FlexPai is, predictably, its software and basic operation. Any time you rotate the device or fold/unfold it, it gets deeply confused and freaked out. I saw apps stacking on top of each other and overlapping with widgets as the tablet was transitioning into phone mode. I launched the camera accidentally more than once”, wrote The Verge.

The US tech news outlet believes Royole feels an “absolute imperative” to rush out its products because more recognised brands such as Samsung, Huawei, LG and Motorola are all going to launch their maiden foldable models this year.

“I don’t blame Royole – a five-year-old company literally founded for the purpose of developing and selling flexible displays – because it faces the existential threat of Samsung coming in and stealing its thunder with a rival foldable device. So Royole hurriedly threw the FlexPai together and let the world gawk at its wondrous, foldable awfulness”, commented The Verge.


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