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Technology

Foldable laptops are at least 2 years away, Intel exec says

PC chip king works with display makers on tricky tech and user experience

U.S. chipmaker Intel is trying to understand the capability and limitation of foldable technology. (Nikkei Montage/Getty Images)
U.S. chipmaker Intel is trying to understand the capability and limitation of foldable technology. (Nikkei Montage/Getty Images)

TAIPEI -- Foldable laptops are at least two years away, a senior Intel executive told the Nikkei Asian Review, as the world's top producer of PC microprocessors explores the display technology with panel makers and end users.

"It's early pathfinding now, and we are trying to understand the capability and the limitation of the [foldable] technology," Joshua D. Newman, Intel's general manager of mobile innovation and vice president of the company's Client Computing Group, said Wednesday on the sidelines of an Intel symposium in Taipei.

Intel sees "potential" for foldable screen technologies to transform laptop user experiences, Newman said, but research that includes discovering which elements are relevant to end users remains at an early stage.

The American company also is researching the technology with leading global display makers such as LG Display, BOE Technology Group, Sharp and Samsung Display, a panel-making unit of Samsung Electronics, the executive said.

Newman said the difficulty surrounding the technology means it will take "at least some two years" for the foldable laptops to reach consumers. But if the research signals a positive user experience, Intel and its ecosystem partners will accelerate the development of such products, he said.

The Intel executive's comments follow a recent decision by Samsung to delay the launch of its first-ever foldable smartphone, the Galaxy Fold, due to issues involving its organic light-emitting diode display.

Intel's endeavor to explore transforming how laptops look also comes as the PC and server chip king suffers an industry downturn, cutting its forecast for the full year and current quarter on April 25.

The U.S. company has battled manufacturing strains since the second half of 2018 that led to a shortage of central processing units in the market, while many personal computer makers needed to turn to Intel's smaller rival, Advanced Micro Devices, for chip supplies.

The world's two largest smartphone makers, Samsung and Huawei, unveiled their foldable phones earlier this year. But Samsung's delay rained on the tech parade.

Samsung, whose display arm has invested billions of dollars in research for flexible OLED technology since 2000, is viewed as the only company that masters the foldable feature for electronic devices. The questionable durability of the Galaxy Fold shows that the technology might require more time to be ready for the market, industry watchers said.

Many Chinese display makers such as BOE, China Star Optoelectronics Technology, Tianma Microelectronics and Visionox also are aggressively expanding OLED display capacity to tap foldable screen opportunities as Beijing seeks to develop world leaders in cutting-edge display technology, the Nikkei Asian Review reported earlier.

If Samsung's foldable smartphone project fails, "it would be bad news for the whole industry," said Chiu Shih-fang, a supply chain analyst at Taiwan Institute of Economic Research.

"Even consumers could become more conservative to such kinds of foldable devices," harming the development of similar products from other vendors, Chiu said. "Meanwhile, whether consumers really think foldable screens are useful to them still remains to be seen."

But Intel continues accelerating efforts to incorporate more technologies -- including artificial intelligence, image processing and sensing and detecting features -- to look beyond traditional PCs.

On Wednesday, Intel announced plans for three Project Athena Open Labs -- in Taipei, Shanghai and California. These labs let hardware component partners test how their electronic parts run on Intel's chip offerings.

It is the chipmaker's first such attempt to better integrate all kinds of technologies -- displays, sensors, batteries or even other chips -- before putting together a real product.

"Those are ecosystem innovation hubs around the world," Newman told a small group of reporters in an interview Wednesday. "It's a unique new investment."

Newman declined to reveal the spending on the investment for the new labs, but said those facilities will be staffed with engineering experts and could provide technical support anytime.

The PC industry dominated consumer electronics in the 1990s and 2000s, but worldwide shipments have declined for seven straight years since 2012 amid the rise of smartphones and tablets.

Though this contraction has slowed during the past three years, dropping a mild 0.4% to 258.49 million units in 2018, PC makers and suppliers are seeking new catalysts such as foldable screens to revive the industry.

PC-related business still produced more than 50% of Intel's revenue in the first quarter of 2019.

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