Are Foldable Smartphones the Future?

Remember the days before iOS? In 2010, Apple finally rebranded its iPhone OS to iOS, making it the first non-Mac OS Apple had released. The significance of the iPhone manufacturer’s rebranding comes not from its shoddy name, but rather its date: 2010. In 2010, smartphone phone factors started to see consolidations. Google was releasing its own share of “standard” smartphones in the name of Nexus, and so for coming 8 to 9 years, we had a bar-type full touchscreen phone as a de facto smartphone.

Let’s rewind the clock before 2010 then. Actually, let’s start from cellphones, not smartphones. I myself was a big fan of Samsung’s lines of cellphones called Anycall. They had several watch-type phone released, sliders, flips, flips with rotating screen, and so forth. Most flips had dual displays: main display inside, and a smaller secondary display on the outside. These form factors, especially flips and sliders, were the most common. The rise of bar or slate only began with RIM and its associates of smartphones with physical keyboards. Before Blackberry, phone was a phone. Having a larger keyboard or screen meant nil out of South Korea, a country where you could have watched TV on your cellphones since 2005. That’s why Samsung had its shares of form factors before 2008. Because before the smartphones, they already had a phone-TV hybrid to sell, and they can’t do that with a portrait mode. So they made a flip phone with rotating screens; so they made a slider; so they made a side slider that will give both big screen and big keyboard. Since the dawn of cellphones, what people did and could do dictated how it was designed.

Hence the real question is, do we consume media where foldable smartphones would be useful? Samsung seems to be selling the idea that this has to be the early adopter’s wet dream; the first foldable tablet-phone hybrid of the future. But this is definitely not the first of its kind. Samsung and other cellphone manufacturers had tried to sell “the cellphone of the future” to the public before and failed to succeed. A cellphone or a smartphone on your wrist is amazing idea, if it does what a regular smartphone does properly and efficiently. It couldn’t. Now turn your back to foldable display. Where would you use it?

How many apps, or ideas even, can you name right now that can only be used on foldable display? Apple mucked up in similar fashion with their 3D Touch lines. Years later since its original release, not all iPhones still carry 3D Touch. Either Apple must be selling it as a premium or the smartphone manufacturer does not see it as a necessity. Same goes with their Touch ID and Face ID technologies, biometric authentications. Normally if either of the technologies are truly superior than the other, it will easily replace the older iteration; Apple could have and should have eliminated Touch ID from its Mac and mobile lines altogether. A superiority of technology or a form factor is observable from the fact that it replaces an older iteration. Now back to the original question. Is phablet with foldable display truly a future of all smartphones?

Granted, phablets are already popular amongst the smartphone form factors; largely grabbing around 30% and that marketshare is expected grow to 50% by 2020. But this is where the literal irony abounds: these phablets utilize all of its screen all the time. Consumers are not willing to pay upward of $2000 for a phablet just to shrink its size in pocket. That is a fact proven time and time from Apple’s hubris. Unless the manufacturer whips up an ecosystem specific to foldable display, it is a moot advantage. For instance, where would you use display half-way bent? While bending the display should be the significant strength and the iconic difference, not even Samsung tries make a featurette out of a such scenario.

Is foldable display another gimmick to sell flagship phones? In long term, I must say no. There is a strong chance the line between a smartphone and a tablet will be blurred. LG’s attempt in rollable TV is a good example. Consumers do not want to feature a big screen as an icon of technology. However, whether people are willing to pay for such a technology and such a device is a story that needs its separate issue as a cover story. Although LG provided an intriguing case for rollable display, —the fact that you can tuck away a TV, even partly, much like on a luxury yacht— it simply failed to address why any media should be on consumed on a rollable display rather than on a flat screen. Now ask yourself a question: has Galaxy Fold answered any questions what you’d do with half-bent display? So far, we are only given examples that can be done identically with phones with hinges.

Coming from my experiences with web designing, I can already see the shortage of any media fitted for foldable display. If you have been on the Mad Tea Party with different devices, you would notice that depending on the screen it would shrink its elements to nicely fit the screen. That’s something called Responsive Web Design. Essentially, you are creating a universal website that works with any resolutions. You can already see how that will be a MUST for foldable display, as you will be switching between two, or even three, resolutions constantly. Obviously, the consensus now is that there is no excuse NOT to adopt one. But as you are surfing the web, you would also see some websites have something called Mobile Website instead. Not only it’s less functional, it looks choppy on some resolutions. However, it works regardless; henceforth, web designers and content providers do not care for it. In other words, most media is unlikely to be cooperative.

The question behind foldable display truly echoes of what smartphone had. Before iPhone, most phones released under “smartphone” category was barely different from a regular cellphone. It was the apps and webs, the ecosystem behind touchscreen smartphone, that answered the question. Does foldable display have what it takes to conquer all smartphones? Right now, I doubt it.

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