On the MicroTAC’s 30th anniversary, Motorola dishes on folding phone craze

Thirty years before the arrival of folding phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X, flip phones broke new ground in the form of the Motorola MicroTAC 9800X. Widely regarded as the first flip phone, the MicroTAC ushered in a new era of mobility with its flip design and portable size.

As a new wave of advanced folding phones begin to reach the market, including a potential brand new RAZR from Motorola, it’s worth appreciating how form factors have played a role in shaping progress.

Motorola MicroTAC 9800X

If you watch any movie from the mid- to late-80s, you’ll note that cellular phones of the time had one common characteristic: they were nearly all wired into cars. This is why they were often called carphones. These analog devices were huge, required massive batteries, and were only portable in the sense that they went where the car went.

Motorola MicroTAC flip phone

In April 1989, Motorola debuted the MicroTAC 9800x (the “TAC” stood for Total Area Coverage). The phone stood out for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it introduced a flip design, wherein the mouthpiece was embedded in a plastic flap. The flap protected the number pad when closed and ensured the microphone was positioned nearer the owner’s mouth when open. The flip design was far more compact when compared to brick- or bar-style phones. In fact, the phone was supposedly designed to fit into a shirt pocket.

By modern standards, the MicroTAC is positively prehistoric.

“Small” in 1989 meant the phone measured about nine inches long when open, and it weighed three-quarters of a pound (302g). Today’s phones often measure about six inches long and weigh around 175g.

By modern standards, the MicroTAC is positively prehistoric. It had an eight-character monochrome LED display, 12-button number pad with associated function keys, and an internal phone book. It cost between $2,500 and $3,500 and the battery barely lasted at all. Motorola made the phone for years, with a number of variants making small improvements to the design over time.

Motorola’s main competitor, Nokia, mostly eschewed the idea of folding phones and stuck with bar-style devices. Motorola continued to churn out MicroTAC models until 1997, though the 1996-era StarTAC largely replaced it.

Motorola StarTAC

The StarTAC was another bombshell phone. Similar to the MicroTAC with a folding design, the StarTAC was significantly smaller and lighter (88g). The StarTAC is considered to be the first clamshell phone, meaning the two halves of the folding design were of approximately the same size. Some people thought it looked like a Star Trek Communicator.

Motorola StarTAC clamshell phone

In addition to the clamshell design, the StarTAC was among the first phones to be able to receive SMS text messages, and one of the first to include a vibrate alert. Owners could opt for a lithium-ion battery, which was rare at the time. The Motorola StarTAC cost $1,000.

The MicroTAC and StarTAC eventually led Motorola to its most iconic device.

With its more affordable price tag, the StarTAC was also one of the first cellular phones to truly resonate with consumers. Motorola sold about 60 million of them. Considering the low market saturation in the late 90s, 60 million is quite a significant number.

Developing the MicroTAC and StarTAC eventually led Motorola to its most iconic device.

Motorola RAZR

Motorola swung for the fences with the Motorola RAZR and hit it out of the park. The phone was an update to the MicroTAC and StarTAC line in basic conception, but pushed boundaries even further.

Motorola RAZR clamshell phone

“We knew from learnings about StarTAC that we had to deliver a device that would hold up to everyday life, something that you could always depend on, and at the same time be something that you wanted to share and show off,” said Motorola to Android Authority.

What the MicroTAC started, surely the RAZR finished.

The RAZR, which was announced in July 2004 and went on sale later that year, was slimmer than any other device at the time. It also boasted a fresh, futuristic design. It was smaller (3.9 inches tall) and lighter (99g) than many competing models. Though the $600 price point caused many to balk, Motorola went on to sell more than 130 million of the original V3 variant.

Motorola believed “there should be no compromise for the user, big screen, large keyboard, and great battery life, all in something that was unbelievably small and compact. At its core, RAZR was able to blend aspects that were clearly Motorola and make it look futuristic at the same time. We were able to put people’s notion of what the future would be into their hand.”

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The rest, as they say, is history. What the MicroTAC started, surely the RAZR finished. The original RAZR ended production in 2007, after the debut of the original Apple iPhone. It wasn’t too long before Apple’s device upended the industry and largely ended the popularity of flip, folding, and clamshell phones as we knew them.

Full circle

Once the iPhone made its mark, originality in phone design declined. Nearly the entire market consolidated around the slab-style phone — which is why the last six months has been fascinating to watch unfold, literally.

Samsung Galaxy Fold half folded on table

Clamshells of the late 90s and early aughts featured small-ish screens on one half, and a number pad with controls on the other half. Samsung and Huawei have introduced phones this year that have folding screens. The Galaxy Fold opens up like a book to reveal a large screen within, while the Huawei Mate X unfolds more like a pamphlet. These devices take advantage of the latest in screen technology, but, as evidenced by the Galaxy Fold, the tech may not be ready just yet.

What’s important here, however, is the innovation. Just like the MicroTAC did 30 years ago, the Galaxy Fold and Mate X represent an exciting paradigm shift.

“The foldable technology being shown and envisioned today is extremely exciting,” noted Motorola. “Beyond just being very cool tech, the innovation behind the new form factor allows manufacturers to design phones in entirely new ways, which will lead to new ways of using smartphones most can’t even imagine today.”

Samsung suffered a setback, however, when early review units began to fail. The company recalled the devices and delayed the launch while it investigates. Huawei hasn’t delayed the launch of its foldable phone, at least not yet.

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On display

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Does Motorola have a foldable phone up its sleeve? Motorola played it cool. “At Motorola we pride ourselves on innovation,” said the company to Android Authority. “We keep a close pulse on the latest technology and constantly look at ways we can best innovate for our consumers.”

Speaking of pulses, Motorola’s leaked (though definitely not confirmed) folding RAZR reboot is a wonder to behold (if the renders are legit), and just might have quickened the heart beats of phone fans the world over.

Samsung might be working on two more foldable smartphones

Samsung Galaxy Fold half folded on table

According to a report published today through The Bell, Samsung is working on two more foldable smartphones. Called “Type G” and “Type S,” the devices are reported to be two larger variants of the delayed Galaxy Fold.

Starting with the Type G, the device reportedly features an 8-inch display when unfolded and two sides that fold in to form the letter “G.” The Type S reportedly features a larger 13-inch display when unfolded and is somewhat shaped like the letter “S.”

Image of a Samsung foldable device from a patent. USPTO

Samsung filed a patent for the Type S back in November 2018, so we have an idea of what the device might look like in the image above. The report didn’t say when the Type G and S will be released.

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Because this is only a rumor, take all of this with a grain of salt. That said, a report in March also alleged that Samsung is working on two foldable devices — an out-folding device and a clamshell device. The older report claims that Samsung will announce the out-folding device either later this year or early next year.

Unfortunately for Samsung, the company’s facing quality control criticisms over recent Galaxy Fold issues. Samsung officially delayed the Galaxy Fold’s public launch in China and other regions due to the display issues.

Whether these issues will also show up in Samsung’s two other rumored foldable devices is anyone’s guess. That said, Samsung will likely take their time with the two devices in order to avoid any additional public snafus.

NEXT: Samsung delays Galaxy Fold release, new launch date to be announced in the coming weeks

When will folding phones become actually affordable?

Pioneering a new technology isn’t cheap. The latest foldable display technology seen in the Samsung Galaxy Fold, Huawei Mate X, and even the Royole FlexPai is expensive. Too expensive for the general consumer to make 2019 the year of the foldable phone, despite the exciting revolution in design thinking.

This is partly the outcome of first-generation devices based on first-generation innovations.

At the same time, these foldable devices are intentionally made to be super high-end devices, packed with marvels. This revolution won’t be in our pockets and on our wrists just yet.

Here’s why.

Limited yields

Royole super thin OLED display

For display technology, the road from lab innovation to consumer hardware is long and slow. Complex hardware and expensive fabrication processes require huge upfront investments in the order of billions of dollars. Once mass fabrication begins, manufacturing yields can constrain the viability and profitability of new technologies. A panel with even a single dead pixel can’t leave the factory.

Opinion post by
Tristan Rayner

OLED technology, the current gold standard in smartphone manufacturing, had been in testing and small-scale production for years before becoming commercially viable. Many companies experimented with OLED, but few went on sale, and even then, they were initially out of reach for anyone but the hardcore enthusiast with a deep wallet. It took Samsung years to drive down the price of OLED screens to be competitive with LCD.

While OLED panels with flexible substrates have been around for a few years now, they weren’t designed to be actively and repeatedly flexed by the end consumer, but encapsulated in glass, as we’ve seen in the likes of the Galaxy S series, and the iPhone.

Current foldable designs call for an improvement in panel durability, but without the protection provided by a glass cover. The thin plastic substrate needs to flex thousands of times without ever creasing or malfunctioning. They are naturally harder to produce, and even the protective films on the surface of the display are surprisingly complex — the flexible display on the Nubia Alpha, for instance, features a protective film made up of 11 distinct layers.

Even protective films are difficult to make: the Nubia Alpha features a protective film made up of 11 distinct layers.

Aside from the display itself, the final manufacturing yields of foldable products are believed to be much lower than conventional smartphones. Besides the displays, new and complex hinge designs are another factor inflating manufacturing complexity and, naturally, the final retail price.

Limited production

Smartphone makers have to test the waters with foldables. But without a clear demand, the bets being placed are modest. OLED production for foldable displays is in its true infancy, making the per-item cost significant until economies of scale play out.

Whatever capacity is available is apparently in use at the moment, too. Android Authority understands from speaking with new smartphone entrant Energizer at MWC, that it contacted foldable OLED display providers and can’t get access to displays from these factories because other companies have already reserved all the capacity.

Given the expense involved and the limited demand, even the largest OEMs are committing to much lower runs of devices when compared with other flagship smartphones, a complicit factor in high unit costs. Fab utilization isn’t going to go dramatically higher from these test devices, creating a chicken and egg scenario.

Exclusivity and control

Here’s the other factor that is more inside the control of manufacturers right now. These are first-generation devices. They’re as good as they can be today, but they’re still imperfect. The Galaxy Fold is hindered by the fold gap that we still haven’t seen a lot of. Meanwhile Kris’ musings from his time with the Mate X were encouraging, but still show that the device appears to be a proof of concept, rather than a proof of our future.

As Kris wrote in his impressions post, the big deal here is the “dual benefit of driving innovation,” and “enabling a very public pissing contest between two of the biggest smartphone manufacturers in the world.” Not, so much, the devices themselves.

Samsung Galaxy Fold Price

In terms of control and exclusivity, Samsung and Huawei aren’t offering these devices at reasonable prices to try and sell them. The exclusivity of both devices serves them far better than being flogged cheaply, as Samsung is showing with its concierge-level of service for Fold buyers.

Both manufacturers are retaining control with high-end, high-cost, and yet unclear value items.

Not even Samsung or Huawei are sure of the value of their products; they aren’t mass-producing them, and they aren’t pricing them to sell. They’re pricing them to try and retain control and not have them in the mass market before they’re seriously proven.

Ridiculous specs

Both the Galaxy Fold and Mate X are completely overblown on the specs front; the Galaxy Fold, in particular, has five cameras and 12GB of RAM, for reasons unknown.

Both devices are also 5G, which is another costly new addition to the spec sheet. 5G adds an element of nice-sounding future-proofing to these powerful devices. But, as we keep warning you, it’s mostly a marketing ploy for now, given the lack of practical 5G anywhere on the globe.

Will this change, and when?

We’ll definitely see prices fall as displays and hinges becomes better and cheaper, and foldables go from being over-spec’d monsters to value offerings. Huawei CEO Richard Yu suggested a sub-$1000 foldable phone within a few years. “Over time, we will be able to push it below 1,000 euros. For that, we need one to two years. Later maybe in the range of 500 euros,” Yu said recently.

In the meantime, I’d expect tiered offerings. We’ll still have overpowered devices at the high-end, but perhaps some budget options with lower specs after the flagships are launched. Xiaomi has already announced it has a 5G phone for 599 euros, proving that 5G tech itself isn’t necessarily prohibitive and doesn’t need a foldable device to go with it.

A foldable won’t be cheaper than an iPhone before 2021

We know Xiaomi and other low-cost OEMs are working on their own foldable solutions, from overall designs, to hinge tech, such as the TCL DragonHinge. Largely though, we’ll be waiting for more production facilities and more competition in this space for these hi-tech displays, and the complicated hinges, and final assemblies.

To answer the question, I doubt 2019 sees an affordable foldable phone. We may see lower spec’d editions around the September/IFA period, but we might need to wait until 2021 before a foldable is cheaper than an iPhone.

Foldable phones have arrived, but are we there yet?

Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone Hands On display unfolded

Opinion post by
Abhishek Baxi

Foldable phones were, unarguably, the highlight of Mobile World Congress this year. Launched within a week by the two biggest smartphone makers in the world, the category got instant credibility, along with a lot of scrutiny.

While Samsung showcased the Galaxy Fold only from a distance, some media folks – including our very own Kris Carlon – did spend some time with the Huawei Mate X, albeit very briefly. Much has been said about the two devices not being ready for prime time, and hence Samsung’s and Huawei’s reluctance to put them in the hands of MWC visitors.

Of course, Samsung and Huawei are keen on painting foldable phones as the next evolution of personal computing devices, but are they?

The wow factor

Foldable phones are without doubt a technological marvel. While sci-fi movies might have convinced us that foldable displays were an obvious evolution, it’s absolutely mind-blowing that we have functional folding devices with beautiful OLED displays in our hands today. And it’s not just the foldable screen that’s impressive. Beneath the surface, the hinges on both smartphones are stunning pieces of engineering, not to mention the incredibly powerful specs we’ve grown accustomed to.

Are foldable phones solution to an actual problem?

Some geeks and early adopters among us, with $2000 in the pocket of course, may want to jump on the first-generation devices from Huawei and Samsung. Foldables are indeed a killer product category – in theory – and they’re definitely flaunt-worthy. But are foldable  a solution to an actual problem?

SoftwareSamsung Galaxy Fold

Much of the software showcased on the Galaxy Fold and Mate X has been underwhelming as yet. You get a bigger display, and that’s that. More map data, larger photos, and more screen estate while browsing the web.

Multitasking with three apps isn’t a massive leap, really, and mostly looks clunky. With almost square aspect ratio displays, most videos – a big selling point of a larger display – will play letterboxed to almost the same size as many larger smartphones in the market today.

Google took years to make Android workable on tablets, and this new form factor will likely need platform updates, as well as extensive software tinkering by OEMs before it truly offers a compelling experience. That’s clearly one of the reasons why the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X weren’t handed out to media for an extended time at MWC.


Huawei Mate X Foldable Phone rear panel

Samsung and Huawei clearly rushed to be the first to the finish line with a foldable device (the Royole Flexpai doesn’t really count), while setting the groundwork for iterative improvements down the line.

While the build quality on Mate X looks solid, there is a bump in the display above the hinge. Many suspect this bump will only become more pronounced over time. Like anything you fold and refold repeatedly, it’s going to degrade. Also, hinges could loosen up over time like most products with hinges, including laptops, do.

There are too many unanswered queries at the moment.

On the Galaxy Fold, the screen doesn’t lie flat. Is that how it’s supposed to be? Is that comfortable? I don’t know. In the case of the Huawei Mate X, the display folds outwards. How do you protect the all-screen slab from scratches? It’s not even glass, but plastic, which is more prone to scuffs. There are too many unanswered queries at the moment.

There are also questions about battery life, a constant pain point for power users and those on the go. A slight battery size bump on a device with double the display area doesn’t sound too promising. Using a tablet as a secondary product, you can toss it back in the bag if the battery runs out or leave it to charge across the room. When it comes to your primary device, that’s not a compromise most will make.

What’s next?

A flexible phone design by Motorola.
A flexible phone design by Motorola.
An image showing the Motorola foldable phone patent.

These are early days for foldable phones. Smartphone makers will naturally try to throw different form factors at consumers to see what sticks. Foldable phones won’t be limited to the phone-to-tablet form factor we’ve seen so far.

Via patent filings, we’ve seen Motorola’s attempt at reincarnating its classic clamshell phone, the Moto Razr, by using a tall display that folds into a smaller phone with a smaller external display. This is the same approach ZTE is taking.

In January, Xiaomi teased its prototype foldable phone that folds like the Huawei Mate X, but on both sides, for a more compact smartphone experience. Samsung is also tipped to be working on two more foldable phones in different form factors.

Foldable phones won’t be limited to the phone-to-tablet form factor.

Outside of the Android ecosystem, Microsoft has been working on adapting Windows 10 for its rumored Andromeda foldable device. This will be followed closely by foldable Windows devices from manufacturers including Lenovo and Dell.

The last word

The Huawei Mate X standing on a wooden table.

I don’t want to be dismissive of this innovation (it’s incredible, really!), but I’d also be wary of calling it a new dawn for smartphones. Innovation in smartphones has reached a plateau, and it’s admirable to see some brands forge a new path. It’s what happens next that determines how far we go with foldables.

Of course, more use cases for foldables will emerge over time as the platform evolves and goes beyond our current usage and how we engage with our devices. Or maybe, folding devices will grow on us, like all-screen-and-no-keyboard smartphones, large phones with 6-inch+ displays, and other “quirky” things we got used to in the past.

I quite like the Mate X, honestly, but do I need it? Does it work for me? I’m uncertain at the moment. What do you think?

Oppo exec apparently confirms foldable phone for MWC 2019

The back of the Oppo R17 Pro

  • An Oppo executive has reportedly confirmed that it will announce a foldable phone at MWC 2019.
  • The executive also said Oppo would launch a 5G phone in Europe in the first half of 2019.

Oppo is no stranger to innovation in the smartphone space, having delivered the eclectic Oppo Find X earlier this year. The company isn’t stopping here though, as it’s reportedly got plans to announce a foldable phone in February.

Oppo product manager Chuck Wang apparently told Tweakers (via Let’sGoDigital) that the company would be announcing its foldable phone at MWC 2019 in Barcelona. Wang didn’t reveal any more details regarding the device, such as a launch window or specs.

The move comes a few weeks after Samsung showed off its foldable phone. Samsung’s effort features a 7.3-inch, 1536 x 2152 display when folded out, but also packs a 4.5-inch display (840 x 1960) on the front.

The news means we can expect even more foldable phones in 2019. Huawei has confirmed that it’s working on a foldable device, while Xiaomi and LG are also tipped to be working on the technology.

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Wang also told Tweakers that the company would launch its first 5G smartphone in Europe in the first half of 2019. It’s not known whether this would be an R-series device or part of its flagship Find range.

Finally, the product manager told the publication that it was also working on a phone with a circular cutout in the screen for a selfie camera (much like Samsung’s Infinity O display). This device is purportedly scheduled for 2020 — a while after Huawei is expected to launch its own device.

We’ve contacted Oppo to confirm its foldable phone plans and will update the article if/when we receive a response. Would you buy a foldable phone though? Let us know in the comments!

NEXT: 6 reasons to buy the OnePlus 6T, and 6 reasons to pass

Huawei CEO confirms it is working on foldable phones with 5G

The Huawei logo.

  • Huawei has confirmed it is working on a 5G foldable phone.
  • CEO Richard Yu made the admission at the Mate 20 Pro launch event.
  • The release date, however, remains a mystery.

Huawei CEO Richard Yu has confirmed the company is working on a 5G foldable phone. When asked about foldable phones at the Mate 20 Pro launch event, the CEO answered: “We are working on foldable phones. Foldable phones with 5G,” reports Digital Trends.

We have long known that Huawei is working on both foldable phones and phones that support 5G. However, this is the first time we have seen the two technologies linked by the company.

Previous reports have suggested that Huawei could release its foldable phone at the beginning of next year. On the other hand, Huawei has said its first 5G compatible device won’t launch until June 2019.

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This could bring up the possibility that the company is working on two versions of its foldable phone: one with 5G support and one without. Alternatively, the release date of the foldable phone could quite simply have been delayed, something that wouldn’t exactly be unheard of in the world of foldable devices.

Giving its foldable phone 5G support makes a lot of sense for Huawei. The company is heavily invested in 5G technology and, as well as its phones, it is — sometimes controversially — involved in the supply of 5G infrastructure equipment.

The first 5G networks are currently set to begin operation by the end of the year. As well as Huawei, Samsung, LG, and ZTE are known to be working on phones that are 5G compatible.

Next up: 5G: When will your smartphone get it?