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Foldable Phone Sales Won’t Open to Big Numbers, Analysts Say

The top Android phone makers showed off foldable models at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona this year. But are the devices, featuring reader-friendly large screens that fold to fit in a pants pocket, the next big thing or just a minor niche?

Considering the phones’ high prices and emerging questions about durability, the analysts at market researcher Gartner foresee minimal interest in the folding models for the next few years. Offering a “cautious” outlook for the short-term, Gartner analysts’ new report says that foldable phone sales will build to just 30 million units, or about 5% of the market, in the next five years.

Given how many times per day an average user picks up their phone, the new foldable models may scratch quickly, research director Roberta Cozza writes in the report. Prices are also too high to expect mass adoption. “At $2,000, foldable phones present too many trade-offs, even for many early technology adopters,” Cozza says.

The two folding models that grabbed the most attention in Barcelona were the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which will cost nearly $2,000 when it hits store shelves at the end of April, and Huawei’s Mate X, to be priced at nearly $2,600 when it goes on sale sometime in the middle of this year. Samsung’s Fold opens to a 7.3-inch screen called the “Infinity Flex Display” and will come in 4G and 5G versions, Samsung says. The Mate X’s 8-inch folding screen, dubbed the “Falcon Wing,” will have 5G compatibility.

Chinese manufacturer TCL, which makes phones under the Blackberry and Alcatel brands, also showed off a prototype of a folding phone. The company’s “DragonHinge” phones, all priced under $1,000, will be available in 2020.

Apple (AAPL) hasn’t said anything about possible folding iPhone models, though it has filed some patents related to bending screens.

Overall, Gartner predicts that the smartphone market has stopped growing for the foreseeable future. Phone sales, which hit 1.81 billion last year, will total only 1.80 billion in 2021. Likewise, the traditional PC market, comprised mainly of desktops and notebooks, will shrink from 260 million devices sold last year to 255 million in 2021, Gartner says.

“Consumers are increasingly retiring their PCs but not replacing them,” notes research director Ranjit Atwal, adding that 2018 was the eighth consecutive year of stagnation for that sector.