Samsung innovation: from the first flip-up to cutting edge foldable

So far this year, Samsung has shipped more phones globally than any other manufacturer (Counterpoint Reasearch). And, while it makes plenty of safe and dependable phones in varying shapes and configurations, the South Korean electronics giant has learned a few things along the way: to tantalise new customers, it needs to take risks.

Perhaps this is why, after years of launching its flagship phones in the heart of Western markets like Berlin, San Francisco and New York, Samsung has come home to its native Seoul, in South Korea, for the global launch of its Galaxy Z series of foldable phones.

This is a noteworthy move considering that Samsung goes head-to-head with Apple, an adversary that’s built a technological empire by “thinking different”, continually personifying the Zeitgeist to remain enduringly ‘cool’. Apple often ranks as the world’s most desirable brand, topping this year’s charts, according to Kandar BrandZ’s Most Desirable Ranking for 2023.

Samsung, too, has found a place in the discerning hearts of trendsetters and ‘cool kids’, particularly with the Galaxy Z Flip5 aimed at younger markets. Indeed, South Korea has made significant cultural contributions on the global stage, capturing the attention of Western audiences. Just spend a few minutes on TikTok, and you’ll notice the tidal wave of K-pop hysteria or the chatter about the next must-watch K-drama, with popular ones including Squid Game, Parasite, Pachinko, and many others.

Sydney Sweeney choosing a flip phone
Fan favourite Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria, Handmaid’s Tale, The White Lotus), deciding which Flip5 she’s taking home

A home of innovation

Samsung’s Seoul launch not only showcased cutting-edge mobile phones but also provided insight into its history. I had the opportunity to visit the Samsung Innovation Museum while covering the UnPacked launch. The museum, part of Samsung’s Digital City campus, spans 10,950 square meters and details the evolution of the electronics industry with exhibits about inventors and the first versions of various products, including radios, batteries, televisions, word processors, refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and, of course, phones.

It was fascinating to see Samsung’s phones evolve over 35 years, and this opened my eyes to the company’s innovation and willingness to experiment. In 1994, for example, the very first ‘AnyCall’ phone (SH-770) managed to make a call from 1,915 meters up, proving it could be used in the mountainous terrains around Korea. In 1999, Samsung released the Flip-Up Phone (SCH-3500). This pre-dated modern clamshell and foldable phones with a distinctive flip-up design and graphic LED, and set a US sales record at the time with 6 million units. That same year, Samsung launched the Mini Folder Phone (SCH-A100), which was its smallest mobile phone ever, weighing just 89 grams. It could still manage 270 minutes of standby time and went on to be used by a third of mobile phone owners in Korea.

Samsung even claimed the world’s first ‘Watch Phone’ (SPH-WP10). This featured miniature buttons and antenna, and kept the weight down to just 39 grams. 

Samsung’s Colour Display Phone (SCH-A565), released in 2002, earned special praise for “operating after it was run over by a truck.” The first ‘True Colour’ phone (SGH-T100) was released the same year, and featured a cutting-edge LCD-TFT screen, however, this suffered from high power consumption and a very short battery life. 

Samsung cosied up with Hollywood with its Matrix Phone (SPH-N270) that was specially designed for and featured in The Matrix Reloaded. Only 5000 working models were made for sale, so this one’s a collector’s item. 

The ‘Benz Phone’, the SGH-E700, was the world’s first dual-folder camera phone with built-in antenna. Launched in 2003, this was positioned as the ‘Mercedes Benz’ of cellular phones as it symbolised “social standing, wealth and tradition.” 

Samsung even made a Projector Phone (GT-i7410) with integrated mini-projector that gave miners hope when trapped in an underground tunnel.

There were more innovations too, such as a ‘haptic phone’ that delivered a unique tactile experience with 22 different vibrations, and many other world’s firsts like the MP3 phone, TV phone, and high-resolution camera phone.

More recently, some may remember the “oversized” phone-tablet, or “phablet” form factor, appearing in Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. These phones were all about making us more productive while on the go, and even came with a handy stylus (S-Pen). While the original Note’s 5.3-inch screen seems cramped by today’s standards, it was a massive increase over the tiny phone displays of the time – and a risky move that paid off. The Note was born in 2011 and merged into the S22 Ultra last year but deserves its place as a trailblazer that helped shape the phones we use today.

Will all our phones be foldable?

Samsung broke new ground in 2020 with its first foldable phone, the Galaxy Z Fold, followed by the Flip. While the first generation had its problems, each subsequent year saw improvements to durability, water and dust resistance, screen sizes, hinges, camera capabilities and more. Since then, there’s little doubt of the potential of the foldables market, with growth projected to cross 100 million shipments in 2027, according to Counterpoint Research.

Foldables are firmly part of Samsung’s future roadmap, and we may even see a time where conventional flat phones fall out of favour entirely, as people want ever larger screens in more compact and personalized packages. The big question is when Apple will get into the foldables game, and when it does, it will add even more legitimacy to a foldable future.

Behind the Galaxy Z design

I was also able to visit Samsung’s Seoul R&D Campus, to meet the designers of the foldable Galaxy Z range. I found it intriguing to learn about the unique challenges in designing a product that pushes engineering limits while also needing to be desirable, appealing, and cool. I was fascinated by mock-ups of iterations of the Fold5 and Flip5 that didn’t make it into final production, many of which had minor variations in screen shape and aspect ratio, as well as hinge design, and came in various materials and colours.

While it might be easy to think that the Flip5’s signature colour – Mint – could be decided in a single creative meeting, there’s a considerable method and strategy behind it. Colour is an important buying factor, so a ‘colour platform’ needs to be decided that features 4 complimentary colours to give people choice. 2023’s colour platforms include “Future Nature” and “Modern Nature”, and these provide styling guidance for phone cases and accessories. Mint, for example, was inspired by the ocean and a “clear day”. This also connects to Samsung’s sustainability commitments, incorporating materials made from recycled glass, reclaimed aluminium, and ocean plastics into new devices.

A proud heart

Samsung’s return to South Korea signifies not just a defining launch for the brand – it’s a show of confidence in its identity and future direction. We watched as Samsung unveiled its latest foldable technology but, as the dust settled, there was more to see: a long history of innovation, experimentation, and perseverance, all stemming from a uniquely cool, expressive, and Korean heart beating proudly for the world to enjoy.