SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Samsung is months away from making a foldable display that will enable a smartphone to expand into a 7.3-inch tablet. The Korean giant aims to leapfrog Apple with the new form factor running a redesigned user interface now in beta.

Attendees at the Samsung Developer Conference here got a brief glimpse of a working prototype of the new hybrid mobile system and heard a tutorial about how to develop apps for it.

Google said that it will create extensions to the next version of Android for foldable devices. It will also release APIs to support multi-windowing interfaces that Samsung described for its foldable. Samsung and Google aim to release an emulator for the new screen sizes and their behaviors for developers before actual devices ship.

Foldable displays have been on the mobile horizon for many years. How soon they expand from a high-end niche to broader use will depend on issues including the price and power consumption of the new displays.

Samsung is expected to keep the displays proprietary to its Galaxy devices for at least the first year. The company makes higher profit margins on displays than mobile devices, creating pressure to release the components as merchant products, said analyst Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy, predicting that the first foldable phones could sell for $1,599.

“The appeal of a foldable is immediately evident to anyone who has seen or heard of it,” said Mike Feibus, analyst with Feibus Tech. “The natural number of personal devices is two — one you carry in a pocket and one put in a bag — so when a third one shows up, it’s because of a shortcoming in one or both of the other two.”

The display required innovations in materials and manufacturing processes to withstand hundreds of thousands of folds and achieve a 45% thinner size, in part from thinner polarizer layer. Samsung gave few details on the internals of the display, but it did share some specs of the foldable display and a companion cover display for the device.

The two screens on a foldable aim to complement each other. (Image: Samsung)
The two screens on a foldable aim to complement each other. (Image: Samsung)

A Samsung engineer noted that the cover display has full functionality but will focus on simple functions. The main display can be split into up to three active displays. The cover and main display can show different or the same images.

Samsung’s One UI targets use in both smartphones and foldables. It aims to simplify the clutter of icons that have spread as devices expanded their features.

A representative of Flipboard described the company’s plans to create content for the Samsung foldables. They will let images on a cover display open on the main display to a full story, and the main display will support multiple active windows.

Beyond touch screens, Samsung rolled out a variety of tools and software interfaces to spread use of its Bixby voice assistant broadly as a machine-learning interface. By 2020, the Korean giant aims to connect the more than 500 million products that it ships each year using Bixby and its SmartThings IoT platform.

“AI will transform every experience we have with consumer electronics, and Bixby is our central platform for AI,” said Eui-Suk Chung, head of software and AI for Samsung’s mobile group. “Users just need to know what they want to do, and Bixby will take care of the rest — it will be all around you all the time.”

To expand Bixby to more devices and services, Samsung is releasing its internal developer tools to third parties. The Bixby Developer Studio runs on Windows and MacOS, can automatically generate code, and includes a phone simulator for testing.

Samsung is also using Bixby as a voice controller for its TVs. It will release in December a media control API that partners including Hulu, Netflix, and Spotify will support.

The company showed its TVs as control centers for home automation using its SmartThings IoT software. A demo showed connections enabled by TizenRT, a lightweight version of the OS used in the Galaxy Watch that can run in less than 1 Mbyte of RAM.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times