Foldable Phones: Cool idea, messy execution

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Late last year, at the start of the holiday season, foldables phones were on the cusp on launching. I argued that foldables were unique in their technology, but ultimately were very similar in conception to convertibles on the one hand, and offered less value due to the nature of the devices they wanted to replace on the other. I noted that ‘the concept of a foldable remains pretty cool, but [we are yet to] see if it survives a collision with reality.” With the news of the Samsung Galaxy Fold this week, the idea of foldable phones aren’t winning their first collision.

This year at MWC, we were met with a deluge of foldable phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X which folded this way and that. While both devices impressed upon hands-on, on extended use, the Samsung Galaxy Fold had failed to hold up to scrutiny. The raison d’etre of the foldable, its flexible screen, was the culprit.
Multiple reviewers reported screen failure within the first two days of using it.
When the screen didn’t break, the fact that it was plastic worked against it, with the device picking up nicks and scrapes that a gorilla glass equipped device would not.

On the micro level, the Samsung Galaxy Fold has been full of problems, urging Samsung to release two statements. The first addresses the delay of the device, noting:
“While many reviewers shared with us the vast potential they see, some also showed us how the device needs further improvements that could ensure the best possible user experience. To fully evaluate this feedback and run further internal tests, we have decided to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold. We plan to announce the release date in the coming weeks.”

The second addresses the durability of the display:

The main display of the Galaxy Fold is made with a new, advanced polymer layer and adhesive that’s flexible and tough enough to endure repeated folding actions with an extra protective layer to guard against impact. The protective layer is susceptible to blemishes and marks in certain circumstances, but they will not hinder your experience or the content you are viewing.”

Now, explanatory statements are all well and good, but even when that’s dismissed, the device is still very much a protoype.
In a comment that is very much damning with faint praise, TechCrunch noted that: “The fold is undoubtedly an impressive bit of engineering when it’s working.”

On the macro level, the initial release of foldable phones has yet to sell me on the concept. Like I noted last year, foldable phones are less like the nostalgic flip phones are more like convertibles. Flip phones flipped from small phones — to slightly bigger phones. Foldable phones aim to fold out from mobile phones into full tablets. The problem in this initial concept is that it gets the balance wrong. Or, more fundamentally, the balance between a phone and tablet is trickier than a laptop and a tablet. I argued last year that, “whether using a tablet and a laptop, a user often has a similar goal. They want large screen portable devices that can handle productivity and entertainment tasks. For a phone, they want a small screened portable device that is a messaging, entertainment and camera powerhouse, with potential for productivity (think typing long documents or making powerpoints) in a pinch. Aside from that, for many people, a phone is their primary computing device while a tablet or even a laptop is strictly optional. No matter how you look at it, a tablet which doubles as a phone is a companion device masquerading in the skin of a primary device.”
That seems to be borne out in reviews: The Verges Dieter notes the Galaxy Fold is an absolute joy to use as a tablet. As a phone, “It is less useful than a phone when you’re walking, and it’s way more useful when you’re sitting down.” Stuff opines that, “ It’s awkwardly bulky, bezel-heavy on the front, and there’s a visible crease that runs down the phone’s middle.” T3 argues that when using it as a phone, “the display feels really lanky and typing on the keyboard takes some practice, as the screen is so thin.” It could be a decent phone, but most people will only use it when “they have no choice.”

Yes, its a prototype, but the issues here described are not of functionality but of the fundamental conception of the device. A foldable phone, as described here, is amazing to use as a tablet and absolutely mediocre and undesirable as a phone. Except that’s the opposite of how people use their devices. That could change of course, and people may really want iPad Mini-sized devices with portable mobile phones as a necessary evil for storage purposes. Maybe. But tablets are a shrinking market, and 2-in-Ones are overwhelmingly becoming a laptop that once in a while is a laptop. One possible counter is that the foldable itself could be a phone that’s part-time a tablet. That would be a good idea, except its still a bulkier, heavier and more compromised phone than normal. Unless we have access to Iron Man’s magic armour, that mass isn’t just going to vanish weightlessly into nothing.

Finally, even as a tablet, foldables are kind of a regression. A foldable is turning into the kind of tablet that people have overwhelmingly rejected — a blown up phone and not say — an iPad Pro or Surface Pro style tablet. Put another way, foldables currently compromise a wildly accepted form-factor to transition into a form-factor that is less so.

I earlier compared foldable phones to convertible laptops and/or tablets. If foldable phones inherit the same trajectory, they won’t die. Versions one and two will be messy, but around V3 and 4, tech companies will strike the balance of productivity and portability they’ve been looking for. They are after all, full of promise, and their novelty is appealing to tech enthusiasts. There’s a possibility that they find their niche and get annual updates with much fanfare. But unless they can fundamentally improve our handheld experience, they may amount to nothing more than the jam tomorrow style of the bot/wearable/google glass revolution.