This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
It blew our minds when, in 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper made the first call from a mobile phone, the prototype DynaTAC, while standing on a busy street. It was a marvel to be able to carry and use a phone virtually anywhere, even if it was the size of a brick.
Eventually, mobile phones slimmed down so much so that you could easily slide one into your pocket. Then, they got keyboards, and morphed into miniature computers. Today, smartphones are multifunctional devices for which making and taking calls is almost a forgotten function. They are portable music players, screens for watching movies, mini gaming consoles, portals to the Internet and smart homes, and pocketable cameras.
So where could the smartphone possibly evolve next, short of being able to take out the garbage and cook dinner for us? The answer might just be a design shift like we haven't seen since the first iPhone came onto the scene, from a boring, rectangular device with a large touchscreen to a foldable one with two screens and a hinge.
The idea of a phone that can fold isn't new. Clamshell phones (also called flip phones) were commonplace back in the ‘90s. And in 2016, LG showed a concept OLED display that folded up like a newspaper. But a new wave of sophisticated, touch-enabled foldable phones are coming, and they put the clamshell to shame.
Samsung will be releasing its Galaxy Fold in the U.S. in April, while Huawei will launch the Mate X in June. Royole demonstrated the FlexPai smartphone at CES this year, which is currently only available in China. While LG took that rolling OLED concept and used it for a television instead, its V50 ThinQ smartphone does work with a clip-on DualScreen display that functions as a second 6.2" screen for activities like gaming, or for viewing two apps at once. The design is technically more modular than it is foldable. And LG isn't focusing so much on the dual-screen option as it is on the V50's uber-fast 5G connectivity. But a similar expanded screen capability is there, albeit not in as sexy and seamless a set-up as with the true foldable models coming to market.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold has a 4.58" Super AMOLED screen when folded up, and expands to reveal a 7.3" Dynamic AMOLED screen once unfolded that can be used for an expanded view, or viewing up to three apps at once.
Do We Really Need Foldable Phones?
Of course we don't need foldable phones. But do we want them? Beyond the cool factor is the potential for some practical advantages with a foldable phone.
The expanded screen size is the most obvious, allowing you to bring one device with you, whether it's for travel or business meetings, instead of having to pack a smartphone and a tablet, or even a laptop. Commuters can be more productive on the go. While it's awkward to review a spreadsheet from a phone with even the largest of screens, having twice the screen real estate could make that do-able. Multi-tasking is also a plus. You can watch a movie or surf the Web on one screen while messaging with your team at the office on the other, without having to use a small 3" window for either task, or manage multiple tabs.
There are entertainment advantages, too, like having a bigger screen for gaming on-the-go, a built-in kickstand for tenting the device for better video viewing (on an airplane, for instance), managing multiple conversations at the same time, and previewing or reviewing photos or videos easily from one side of the phone while you take them with the other.
Beyond that, James Manning Smith, Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting, says that "aesthetic appeal" is a primary trigger for smartphone purchases overall. So even if the practical benefits are less obvious, "a foldable display offers more options and greater consumer pull.
"Smartphone design," he continues, "has remained largely unchanged for the last decade, so a flexible screen offers the prospect of a move from the now common rectangle. It starts to build out a new set of USPs, which - if positioned correctly - could quickly capture the hearts and hands of consumers."
Royole says the screen on its FlexPai foldable smartphone/tablet is "virtually unbreakable," measuring 8" diagonal when unfolded to get a larger view of the screen, or to see two apps at once via split screen.
The Good and Bad of the Foldable Design
Beyond the usage benefits, foldable phones offer additional advantages in design. Since flexible displays use plastic versus glass, they are more durable, and thus more resistant to water and dust, and less prone to breaking or cracking after a drop. This, says Smith, benefits both customers and vendors by lowering the cost of replacing or repairing a handset under warranty. Customers also "gain more confidence in their expensive device, confident that the tech can withstand whatever their day-to-day lives throw at them," he adds.
But foldable phones will be subject to constant and repeated stresses, since users will be folding and unfolding them multiple times daily. "It remains to be seen," says Smith, "how these products perform under extreme use conditions. While some breakages are inevitable, these will have to be minimized for consumers to wholeheartedly adopt flexible phones. Reliability and safety will have to be ensured from launch."
It's also unclear how well the screen will look, particularly around the fold areas. Will documents or websites, for example, be comfortably readable? Or will we have to tilt the phone back and forth to read text within the folds, similarly to how you have to push down on the page of a large textbook to see the words by the edges of the spine?
There's also the question of how portable foldable phones really are. Once you fold up the device, it will be at least twice as thick as a standard smartphone. Even with the thinnest possible devices, that still brings us back to a time when phones had more heft. Will anyone really be willing to carry a device that thick, after having gotten so used to wafer-thin, ultra-delicate phones?
With 5G connectivity, the Huawei Mate X's 6.6" FullView OLED screen wraps around the outside of the phone when it's folded, then flattens and expands to an 8" screen that's a mere 5.4mm thin.
The Business of Foldable
From a business perspective, creating a foldable phone is far more labour-intensive, and expensive, which means the higher costs of the flexible screens is passed down to the customer. If Samsung's upcoming Galaxy Fold is any indication, which will cost almost $2,000 in the U.S. (and likely closer to $2,500 in Canada), foldables will be the crème de la crème of phones, designed for the elite and early adopters with deep pockets.
Add to that technology like 5G modems, which Huawei's Mate X will include, and challenges around creating and including a flexible battery, camera module, memory, and storage to work with the flexible screen, and it's tough to argue the astronomical pricing. As competitive pressures arise, and manufacturers build scale, the pricing will come down eventually. But it will be a while before foldable phones become mainstream. For now, vendors must balance their desire to invest in the manufacturing costs to produce such devices with customers' willingness to buy them. This is likely the reason that Apple, which often takes the "wait and see" approach, hasn't yet made a move into foldables.
We also need to consider how foldable phones will impact the accessories space. There won't be much change to peripherals like headphones, cables, and chargers, all of which have been gravitating towards wireless designs anyway. But protective cases will need a complete design overhaul to focus on fully flexible and fitted bumper cases that won't impede the folding and unfolding function of the new phones. What's more, since foldable phones are typically made using more durable plastic and screens, will customers even need protective cases at all? Several top accessories brands are banking on it, with companies like Otterbox and Spigen already teasing that they're working on cases for the Galaxy Fold.
Dr. Martin Cooper, inventor of the mobile phone, thinks the new foldable designs represent a "solution looking for a problem."
The Customers Will Decide
The concept of the foldable phone has tremendous promise. The original "foldable" - the clamshell phone - was the design of choice for many mobile phone users until the PDA and BlackBerry arrived and made us fall in love with the idea of a miniature QWERTY keyboard. Foldable could very well be this decade's clamshell. But widespread adoption will require a change in how we view smartphones (quite literally), how we use them, and the features, functions and design aspects we value most about them. Are we willing to sacrifice ultra-slim design for expanded screen functionality and cool factor? And are we ready to move away from the traditional smartphone form factor to which we've become accustomed?
"Perhaps the biggest determining factor still has to be resolved," says Smith. "Consumer demand for these devices is still unknown, and only time will tell whether the demand is there."
We reached out to Dr. Cooper to get his thoughts on foldable designs as the latest evolution in a category he invented. Sadly, he's disappointed, referring to the devices as a "solution looking for a problem.
"They are also a missed opportunity," Dr. Cooper tells WiFi HiFi. "Consumers are thirsting for a compact flip phone that would open into a full-screen smartphone that won't make butt calls. On the other hand, the offerings I have seen require compromises but few benefits. A pad that doesn't fold flat? Boo! A pad with a line down the middle? Also boo! A pad that requires two hands to open or hold? What are they thinking?"
Before we can even begin to guess if foldables will become mainstream, or if they will become yet another tech design fail for the history books, customers need to get their hands on a foldable device to try one out. And these first phones will be critical indicators of how customers really feel about foldable. But even if reception is positive, pricing will have to drop to more attainable levels before the average customer considers taking the leap. Contract pricing might be able to alleviate some of the upfront burden for those who believe foldable is worth the long-term investment.
"These manufacturers are using us early adopters as beta testers," says Dr. Cooper. "There's nothing wrong with that, other than the steep price for that privilege."
In the end, it will be up to customers to decide if foldable is a fad, or if they represent the future of smartphone design.
Will foldable phones even need protective cases, and what would they look like? Spigen is already working on cases for the Galaxy Fold, and shared these prototype mock-ups with The Verge.
What's Next After the Foldable Phone?
While foldable designs will be all the rage for 2019, we can't ignore the question of how much longer we'll need to own a smartphone at all. Twenty, 30, 50 years from now - maybe even sooner - the smartphone as we know it may cease to exist. It's hard to imagine not having a phone with you, but our future communicator might be a high-tech wrist-worn watch that accesses calendars, receives notifications, plays music, and more, instead of rectangular piece of handheld hardware. Already, many smartwatches have their own SIM cards, like the Apple Watch and Samsung Gear S3, and can function independently of a phone. That format is likely to grow in popularity until eventually, whether during this lifetime or not, we don't need the phone at all.
Even further into the future, the hardware of choice could become an inconspicuous, always-on earpiece. Or maybe we go full Black Mirror, with implanted chips connecting us to everything (and everything to us) from beneath our skin. When we spoke with Dr. Cooper several years ago, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the cell phone, he provided his prediction that the cell phone would become a communications server that connects you to the world, including the Internet, contacts, and medical professionals. And then you'd have other devices on your body, based on individual needs. "Probably one day," he predicted, "and probably not in your lifetime either, you're going to have a phone embedded under the skin behind your ear that has a really powerful computer in it, and that little device is going to be powered by your body because that's what your body is. It's an energy converter. You take food in and it converts that to energy and that's how you move. So why not use a little bit of that to run the phone? And when I want to talk to you, I just tell my computer phone to ‘call Christine,' and the phone says ‘which Christine? The one in New York or the one in Toronto?' And I say ‘Toronto,' and there, I'm talking to you. That, to me, is an optimum phone."
For now, manufacturers continue to innovate, hoping to reinvigorate the smartphone category by, rather than cramming even more functionality into devices (or rather, in addition to doing so), giving us the first significant design change in more than a decade. Will you get on board?
Flip to Page 2 for more on our first foldables to come...