A few weeks before CES 2019 began, a curious email landed in my inbox posing a curious question: Would we like to see the world's first commercially available foldable smartphone? Why yes. Yes, we would.
That phone wound up being the Flexpai, the brainchild of a largely unknown Chinese display manufacturer called Royole. The Flexpai was meant to be the company's coming-out party, CEO Bill Liu told me on the CES show floor, one day before it was packed to the brim with journalists and curious onlookers. Royole had been making displays for years and had been trying to figure out new ways to squeeze its line of flexible OLED panels into more gadgets. Building a smartphone is no small undertaking, especially for a group of people who have never tried before, but Liu insisted that once his company started producing smartphones, it had no intention of stopping.
Fast forward 12 months and Royole doesn't seem to have done a whole lot. No one has really talked about the Flexpai since last CES, and while the company will attend this year's show, it's been pretty quiet so far about its plans. Executives also wouldn't confirm how many devices it's sold in China or abroad, which I suppose makes sense. The market for a foldable phone is niche enough as it is; the market for a foldable phone from a company with no track record in smartphone design has to be even smaller. And let's not forget that the Flexpai itself was... janky, shall we say. It worked, sure, but it was lacking in charm and its odd dimensions meant that even if people did buy one, squeezing a FlexPai into their pockets would be close to impossible.
With all that said, Royole still appears to be churning out these phones. Need proof? Just look at this foldable phone, currently being hawked by Pablo Escobar's brother. It's a Flexpai with a bad paint job and a surprisingly reasonable price. Kudos to Royole for landing a customer, I guess, but the momentum the company seemed to have going into 2019 has all but disappeared.
The moral: Being first is much less important than being good.