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Electronics

Samsung's foldable smartphone wins 2020 Nikkei products award

Galaxy Z Flip opens new possibilities for mobile device designs and functions

Samsung's Z Flip smartphone, shown during its February unveiling in San Francisco, has a large 6.7-inch screen that can fold small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- The foldable smartphone developed by South Korea's Samsung Electronics has been named one of the winners of the 2020 Nikkei Superior Products and Services Awards for opening up new possibilities in designing mobile devices.

The global electronics giant released the Galaxy Z Flip in February. The smartphone folds from top to bottom, like a flip phone of old. The screen was developed using ultrathin glass and a bendable organic light-emitting diode panel developed by Samsung.

Though the Z Flip sports a large 6.7-inch screen, when folded it is a compact 73.6 by 87.4 mm and just 17.3 mm thick -- small enough to fit comfortably in a pocket. The device weighs 183 grams, on a par with conventional smartphones. It can sit half-open like a laptop computer so users can hold hands-free video calls.

The Z Flip carries a price of $1,380, a steep discount from the first-generation Galaxy Fold, which went on sale in 2019 for $1,980. The Fold was the talk of tech-minded consumers. Samsung expanded the target market with the Z Flip.

The foldable smartphone domain, made feasible by Samsung, has breathed new life into smartphone design, which had scarcely changed since Apple debuted the first iPhone in 2007. What let the innovation become reality was Samsung's technical prowess in OLED panels. Conventional liquid crystal display panels are unable to seamlessly fold in the way OLED panels do.

Samsung was the first to mass-produce OLED panels and currently maintains a large share of the global market. The tech conglomerate also handles production from upstream components to the final product, making for an ecosystem that hosts a wide spectrum of technology.

Apple, on the other hand, is a fabless enterprise that procures parts and delegates production to outside contractors. Chinese players like Xiaomi and Oppo make use of outside suppliers and assemblers as well. It could be said that Samsung was able to reinvent the smartphone because it employs a vertically integrated business model.

Samsung also demonstrated its imaginative soul with a limited-edition Z Flip launched in collaboration with the U.S. fashion brand Thom Browne. The Z Flip's colorful lineup has made the foldables into fashion statements that have drawn a following, especially among women.

In September, Samsung released the Galaxy Z Fold2, which acts as a smartphone and tablet in one. With a 7.6-inch display, the device can show multiple apps simultaneously, much like a regular PC. The Z Fold2 is a smartphone that aspires to be used for business purposes as well. Samsung looks to draw in more customers by presenting a wider array of scenarios that its foldables can engage in.

Samsung's smartphone business spans $2,000 high-end phones to mass-market models in the $100 range. The company currently leads in global unit shipments.

Furthermore, Samsung maintains a favorable balance among regions. Latin America's 19% slice of Samsung's smartphone shipments was actually the largest in 2019, according to South Korea's SK Securities. This was followed by 16% for Africa and the Mideast, 15% for Asia excluding China and India, 14% for Western Europe, 13% for North America, 12% for India and 10% for Eastern Europe.

Many analysts and experts are tracking Samsung's strategy in leading the smartphone market. The big question is whether the company can curb the commoditization of smartphones by continuously releasing value-added products. In that light, Samsung's foldable phones have attained measurable results.

Samsung is blessed with device units within its organization that do not exist at other companies. The next likely challenge for the group is inventing a groundbreaking successor to the smartphones ahead of Apple and Chinese competitors.

Nikkei recognizes the latest outstanding products and services through the annual award. A total of 36 products and services from Japan and elsewhere were selected for 2020.

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