SAN JOSE, Calif. — Samsung grabbed world headlines on Wednesday when it announced plans to ship a foldable smartphone sometime next year. But a little-known rival was actually first to announce such a product a few weeks ago and aims to beat the South Korean giant again by shipping it in December.

Startup Royole started ramping a Gen6 fab for flexible displays at its Shenzhen headquarters in June. Its whopping $1.7 billion in private financing and staff of 2,000+ is matched by its outsized ambitions to become a conglomerate like Samsung selling both leading-edge displays and consumer devices that use them.

Royole’s FlexPai tablet is based on its 7.8-inch AMOLED display that folds into the size of a smartphone. The flexible display is in pilot production in a 1.1 million-square-foot fab that will ultimately be able to produce a million 8-inch panels a month.

An artist's rendering of the startup's FlexPai handset. (Images: Royole)
An artist’s rendering of the startup’s FlexPai handset. (Images: Royole)

While China is home to other display makers, Royole is believed to be the farthest along in having commercially available flexible displays. If successful, Royole could become a natural supplier for China’s top-tier handset makers such as Huawei, Oppo, or Xiaomi if they want to have a foldable to match Samsung.

To kickstart its display business, the startup has already started shipping tablets, headsets, and even hats and T-shirts using its displays.

“We won’t do anything that’s traditional,” said Ze Yuan of Royole with a laugh.

“We are targeting niche markets with high-margin products and form factors that will never be anything the market has seen before,” added the R&D manager, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford.

Royole’s foldable display is roughly equivalent to Samsung’s, said Ze Yuan, who attended the Samsung event where it was first discussed.

FlexPai sports a 7.8-inch, 1,920 x 1,440-pixel screen with 308 pixels/inch compared to Samsung’s 7.3-inch 1,536 x 2,152 display with 420 dots/inch. Royole tested its display for bending more than 200,000 times. Samsung said that it has tested bending its display “hundreds of thousands of times.”

Neither company would comment on the thickness or power consumption of their displays or details of any novel processes or materials used to make them.

Royole uses display driver ICs from two unnamed sources that enable building larger screens of different sizes. MagnaChip, a display driver IC company in South Korea, expressed optimism about foldable handsets earlier this year.

Although foldable, the FlexPai display has “a solid feeling” when users interact with the proprietary touch sensors that it has been developing since 2014, said Ze Yuan.

Just for fun, Royole rolled out a shirt and hat combo using its flexible displays that sell for $1,400.
Just for fun, Royole rolled out a shirt and hat combo using its flexible displays that sell for $1,400.

The FlexPai handset includes 20- and 16-MPixel telephoto and wide-angle cameras “that can be bent to capture objects at unique angles.” Samsung did not comment on cameras on its device.

FlexPai uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8-series SoC, supports MicroSD, fingerprint ID, USB-C charging, and stereo speakers and sells for $1,469 with 256-GB memory. Samsung did not detail its handset’s specs or price, but one analyst estimated that it will cost $1,500.

One big difference between the two handsets is that Samsung uses two displays — a narrow 4.58-incher on the outside for use while folded and the larger screen inside. FlexPai wraps its screen around the outside of the device so that, when closed, the main screen becomes three screens — primary (16:9, 810 x 1,440), secondary (18:9, 720 x 1,440), and edge (21:6, 390 x 1,440) displays.

Both companies say that they will support modes that let content flow across multiple screens or let them act independently.

Samsung is working with Google to enable the next version of Android to handle some of the display modes natively. Royole created its own Android variant called Water OS to run Android apps in ways that make sense for its device.

“I’m very happy that someone from Google was at the Samsung event because deep support for foldables will be needed from Android,” said Ze Yuan.

Samsung and Google are working on an emulator so that developers can start writing apps for the systems before they are launched. One app developer is already working with the duo for an app to be available at launch.

FlexPai is aimed, in part, at use by app developers. “Emulators are nice, but any software developer wants actual hardware to see how it works,” said Ze Yuan.

Both Samsung and Royole face the pioneer’s risk that foldable handsets may be the next big thing in mobile — or a narrow, short-lived niche.

The audience of developers and media at the Samsung event was clearly enthusiastic about its foldable. However, that doesn’t mean that mainstream consumers will find the products compelling.

Historically, hybrid products have suffered from tradeoffs. For example, users could be put off by the relatively high cost and power consumption of foldables.

Last year, China’s ZTE rolled out a foldable handset based on two displays on a hinge. The device initially received mixed reviews, suggesting that foldables could remain a novelty with little market traction.

Even if they get some initial traction, it could take years before most mainstream apps are tailored for their screen sizes and capabilities. Indeed, users are likely to find that many favorite apps will run in awkward or unexpected ways, at least in the beginning.

Not surprisingly, Ze Yuan is bullish. “It will take time, and it could be a painful process, but I think it will go mainstream because with 5G and AI, people will want to access more and more information,” he said.

Ironically, the R&D manager may not be an ideal customer himself, in part because he regularly travels between Royole’s offices in Shenzhen and Silicon Valley. “I have three cellphones with separate work, personal, and China numbers,” he said.

Royole has attracted talent from around the globe, said Ze Yuan, who manages the R&D team focused on core display and sensor technologies. The company is really just getting started, he said, noting that it has other systems in the works using its flexible displays and that it has other display and sensing technologies still in the lab.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times Circle me on Google+