At the far end of a storage closet in my basement, I have a collection of old clothes, long out of fashion, boxy and baggy, but still in great shape - the quality of the item outlasted the trend the item embraced. I keep these things knowing full well that if you wait long enough, clothes come back in style.
Fashion is based on trends, and trends recycle. Pants with pleats are the latest statement for 2020, yet the last time I wore pleats was 1987. The first time around, it was trendy. The second or third time, it's called vintage.
Consumer electronics are no different in a desire to embrace the past. While there are tech aficionados who search eBay and other sites for an original 1978 Sanyo Fisher receiver, most of us are just as happy when modern brands introduce new products styled to look vintage with big dials, line meters, wood inlay and analogue switches. It creates the best of both worlds - current high tech on the inside and vintage nostalgia on the outside.
As we reported earlier last week, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Z Flip foldable smartphone, which joins the Motorola Razr flip as another new product on the market to offer what was called, back in the day, a clamshell design. It is understandable why Motorola would launch a modern-day flip - the company invented the flip back in 1989 with the launch of the Motorola MicroTAC and had a runaway success with the StarTAC in 1996. Motorola's legacy has always been associated with the flip. Samsung, too, had flip phones in the mid-2000s, designed to open more like a hot dog bun with a real QWERTY keyboard. And they were joined by many other brands that had flip phones of their own.
Now both brands, and others, are back with modern day flip phones, bucking the trend of new models called Plus, Pro Plus, or just plain Plus Plus Plus with screens that imitate small tablets in size. Is this a play in nostalgia? A case of "what's old is new again?" Or is this just an old idea coming back at the right place at the right time? My guess is that Samsung is going to have a huge hit with the Galaxy Z. Here's why:
One: it's easier to carry. Phones are way too big. he last time I could fit a phone in a jacket pocket was three models ago, so by folding the phone, you cut the physical size in half but gain more screen real estate than the largest available iPhone today.
Two: all new design. Smartphone sales are actually declining and with new models looking essentially the same as the ones they are replacing, brands are doing a poor job in creating a compelling reason for us to upgrade. Now you are buying a new phone that actually looks like a new phone.
Three: minimize distractions. You flip the screen closed which may, in a way, help with our obsessive phone addiction. While the Samsung and Motorola devices both have small external screens that show weather, time, and date, if you turn off notifications, you could actually own a phone that isn't constantly barking at you to "look at me look at me" all day. Instead, there's the added step of having to open it to see notifications.
Four: communication. The most fun thing I remember about owning the StarTAC the first time around was the actual opening and closing of the device. The ergonomics were designed for talking and there was a genuine satisfaction in closing the phone at the end of a call. Could it be that a flip phone may entice a generation of Millennials to call home rather than text, just for the novelty of using a flip for voice? One can only dream.
A recent study has shown that the average North American looks at their phone 52 times each day. If 270 million Americans own a phone, that means that phones are being viewed collectively 14 billion times each day. That stat came from late 2018, so we can guess the numbers have increased. That means Samsung should really be working with its household appliance engineers when building flip phones, because that hinge better be reliable! It will, after all, be opened more often than a fridge! Perhaps if you have to open a phone 52 times a day, you'll get sick of doing it and will just check it 22 times per day? Probably not.
"What's old is new again" may also apply to how we interact with our "new" flip phones: it's too much work to open so I'll just check it at the end of the day. That would totally bring us back to 1996. But maybe that's wishful thinking. Our device designs might sometimes be throwbacks but our habits rarely are.