Written by Aryan Sethi
Take a brief walk down the timeline of mobile phones and you’ll find that earlier phones were bigger and bulkier. They then started getting smaller, culminating in the ultimate nostalgia-inducer, the Nokia 3310. But since the launch of the iPhone in 2007, phones have been getting bigger and slimmer inch by inch. The original iPhone had a 3.5-inch display, while the current iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 6.5-inch display. With the launch of foldable phones, the phones ought to get bigger and bulkier, but with portability in mind. Think of it as a resurgence of the flip phone, only bigger. But does that necessarily mean that it’s better?
A BRAND NEW APPROACH
The new foldable phones are arriving in many different shapes and forms. Some devices, like the Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X, have two screens. When you unfold them, you get a tablet with a roomy screen. Once it’s shut, you have a second outer touch screen to type away at.
Unlike gimmicks of the past, foldable phones actually have some long-term utility inherent to their functional designs; they are meant to go from a smaller, thicker object to a larger, thinner one. How that works depends on the way a company approaches the hinge — a vertical fold that forms a tablet from a phone. The action of unfolding the phone leads to a different experience from when it's closed. Sounds obvious, of course, but there's a question of whether that built-in expansion is enough to justify the additional cost that comes, and will likely continue to come, with buying a foldable phone.
DEMAND FOR INNOVATION
Foldable screens are the perfect antidote to consumer apathy. Foldable screens such as the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X are ushering in a new era of how we interact with technology. But does the market really need it?
Yes, according to Conor Pierce, “Consumers have become slightly apathetic about the same form factor over a number of years.” Foldable phones are the perfect way to address this apathy.
Android has supported this functionality for a while now, but it seems like it’ll come in a lot handier on a wide tablet-sized screen than a standard phone. Hopefully, this will also spur the development of better multitasking features on the platform, and more innovation from software studios to take advantage of said features. And who knows, maybe that will revive interest in Android tablets at some point in the future. I’m nothing if not optimistic.
Google’s Android ecosystem has already been supporting foldable screens since last year, but there is still work to be done. Part of the reason why Huawei delayed the launch of their Mate X is to allow developers more time to optimize their apps. Samsung too has been working closely with developers to ensure that users will still have a rich and fluid experience with their apps. In fact, they are encouraging users to try utilizing three apps simultaneously across the widescreen of the Galaxy Fold. Some of the most popular apps like Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, VSCO, and Amazon Prime Video are already being optimized for its big-screen according to Samsung.
The main pro is that you can enjoy a big screen that fits in your pocket.
Uhm..that’s about it. I mean, do you really need any other reason?
To make gadgets bend, you have to sacrifice some hardness. The flexible displays of foldable phones are generally covered by a plastic layer, which can be scratched up or penetrated more easily than the tough glass protecting traditional phone displays.
“There’s no protecting the foldable display in a real-world environment the way that consumers treat their smartphones,” said Raymond Soneira, the founder of DisplayMate, who advises tech companies on screen-technology.
Foldables also have a design flaw. In general, when they are unfolded, the screen has a visible crease — an eyesore compared with the seamless displays on our smartphones and tablets.
Last but not least, it remains to be seen whether the mechanical hinges of folding phones will survive the test of time.
SO WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?
It’s too early to tell whether foldable phones will succeed. In a few years, technology will probably become cheaper and more robust.
Everybody clearly wants huge displays, but I hate how big my phone is in my pocket. I think we can make an argument that this is something that people want. For foldable phones to escape the criticism that they are mere gimmicks, they require real-world testing to prove their worth to consumers. If the phone’s capabilities are supported by software advances that make use of the screen’s potential, there’s a real chance that folding phones could become the next big thing. Only time, and the advent of 5G, will tell. Until then, let’s stay hopeful, shall we?