The Irish executive says the technology has potential for huge growth
Are folding phones still the future of smartphones? Could we see more foldable displays in gadgets such as tablets and laptops? And when will Samsung Pay come to Ireland?
Samsung’s Dublin-born vice president, Conor Pierce, has some of the answers. The tech giant’s mobile boss for UK and Ireland is in bullish form over the future of folding smartphones, saying it could make up a quarter of the market within three years.
He claims also to be a convert, saying he has now replaced his laptop and tablet with a large, fold-out ‘Galaxy Z Fold’ model.
Does this, I ask him, mean rather short emails?
“I’m not a big fan of email,” says the former Nokia Ireland boss. “I prefer to be present. I use it a lot with Microsoft Teams, because I can then see something like my email or calendar at the same time.”
It’s hard to gauge how much of the market shares Mr Pierce’s enthusiasm, but there are some clues. Samsung’s own sales of foldables in Ireland have gone up seven-fold so far this year, Mr Pierce says. Globally, the market segment has tripled in the last year to between 8m and 10m, depending on which analyst firm you believe.
On the other hand, folding phones have had more than a few teething problems. The screen technology has taken a while to reach a comparable standard to regular flagship devices, with only the richest being able to afford the beta experience for €1,000 to €2,500 per handset. And they still face an existential question: what do they do better? Even the largest models, which fold out to almost 8 inches, can’t show video any larger than ordinary smartphones. None of them offer better cameras, battery life or screen resolution than cheaper non-foldable models. And while they’re slimmer and lighter than early versions, the larger fold-out units are still just about the heaviest, bulkiest, priciest phones you can buy
This may be why Samsung is still the only mainstream smartphone company actually marketing them, accounting for some 90pc of industry sales. Apple remains non-committal while the only other would-be major competitor, Huawei, was effectively banned from selling phones in the West. The result is that folding phones are still under 3pc of global shipments – they may not yet have caught the public’s imagination.
But far from regarding this as a warning over uncertain demand, Mr Pierce says that Samsung is simply ahead of the market.
“I do expect that the future will be foldable,” says Mr Pierce. “I read somewhere that about 27pc of the total market will be foldable by 2025.”
The reason, he suggests, is a basic one. In an era when design, good cameras, long battery life and large, high quality screens have started to become a little indistinguishable across most manufacturers, the Korean electronics giant believes that its commitment to something genuinely original and different is well-placed to pay big dividends.
To this end, its latest Galaxy Z Fold4 and Flip4 models were launched this week, sporting improvements in most functions (see separate reviews on Independent.ie). The larger Fold4 is designed as an elegant workhorse, a sort of 2020s version of the Galaxy Note that kicked off large-screen phones in the mainstream. The smaller Flip4 is more about a sense of aesthetics and fun.
Crucially, the prices are starting to more closely resemble regular flagship devices, even if the Fold4 is still the most expensive phone you can buy.
It’s all set, Mr Pierce says, for something of a grand kickstart to the format after years of experimentation and Covid-based retail interruptions.
“Last year we did a really good job building the overall awareness of foldables with a massive marketing investment,” he says. “But we weren’t able to convert that awareness into sales because a lot of the retail stores were closed due to Covid. We know that when people get these into their hands, about 39pc are more likely to buy it. Last year, only 5pc of retail stores in Ireland had a hands-on foldable device on display. This year, it’s 72pc. That’s going to make a big difference.”
Ireland and the UK are regarded as lighthouse markets
In Ireland, Samsung has sold around 600,000 “premium” phones, Galaxy S or Note models, in the last four years. It has just over 40pc market share, behind Apple.
But Mr Pierce, who is one of Ireland’s most experienced phone manufacturing executives after almost 30 years in senior positions at Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, thinks that the company is on the cusp of leading the next premium category. Ireland, he says, is the perfect place to see how it goes.
“Ireland and the UK are regarded as lighthouse markets,” he says. “They’re very competitive. Premium [phones that sell for over €600] count for over 40pc of the Irish market. And it has grown 5pc in the last six months. So this is probably the most exciting time for me in my career. It’s something brand new, a little similar to moving from a keyboard phone to a touchscreen phone.”
It may not stop with phones, either.
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t be able to see foldable screens across multiple consumer products,” he says. “It’s a technology that is only going to mature in different form factors and sizes.”
While few question Samsung’s general superiority in display engineering, there are one or two other things its Irish fan base have been wondering about.
Why is Samsung Pay still not available here? It’s a bitter pill for those with Galaxy Watches, in particular, who see their Apple Watch counterparts saunter in and out of a shop without having to go near their wallet, or even their phone.
“We still haven’t landed it,” he says. “We’re very keen, but it’s taking a lot of effort to build independent agreements with each of the banks, which is the main blockage for us.”
Samsung hopes to make progress on this “soon”, he adds.
Otherwise, the tech giant, led locally by Nick Porter, has some ideas about how to develop its Irish business.
“Not that I’m biased, but it’s a phenomenal market,” says Mr Pierce. “It’s an innovation hub. There’s a huge opportunity there to try commercial or partner engagement or consumer initiatives. The team have done a great job building strong relationships, but I really want to do a lot more trials and pilots in Ireland.”