Foldable Phones in 2020: Why Are They Back?

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Smartphone design has become boring. 

Look back to the early 2000s, and you’d see phones in different shapes and sizes. Today, however, that isn’t the case. Smartphones are all rectangular slabs of glass, differentiated only by their ‘notch’ or camera set up. 

To break from this trend, there’s a new design in the market: foldable phones. 

In what is a clear homage to the clamshell design of the ’90s, foldable phones are expected to be the future of smartphone design. The question is – are they just a passing fad, or are they here to stay?

The Razr pays homage to the classic flip phone of the early 2000s.
Turn Up the Nostalgia
In a time long before Apple and Samsung, flip phones were all the rage. Motorola’s Razr is an icon amongst the lot. With the (re)introduction of the Razr (at a whopping $1500) this nostalgia is clearly what Motorola is aiming for. As most 90’s kids are now earning and in the workforce, the company hopes they will be able to get them to switch away from their iPhones and Galaxy S’ in favour of something memorable from their childhood. After all it worked for Hollywood, with Jurassic Park and Ghost Busters, so why not for smartphones?

It’s All About Money

The real reason folding phones are now a thing is that companies have realised that people just don’t care about new anymore. As wages stagnate and technological innovation has plateaued, most people are comfortable holding onto their devices for longer periods of time. Sure, carrier contracts and fancy keynotes still push a lot of people to upgrade every two to three years, but for a majority, a smartphone can now last for four years or more. 

But here’s where things get confusing. 

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For years, companies have introduced features like larger screens, better batteries and improved cameras based on consumer surveys and Twitter demand. These were features we really needed, not just wanted. No one asked for a folding phone though, it’s been an idea mostly limited to Reddit threads and late-night drunken conversations. The idea was never really mainstream enough for any company to justify the R&D, let alone release a phone.

The release of devices, and at their current prices is clearly a test. 

The Galaxy Fold costs a whopping $1980.

While the average RRP for a smartphone has been jumping up each year, $1000 is usually viewed as an upper limit for the average consumer. By charging $1500 or more, these devices aren’t meant for the average consumer. 

They target what marketers call ‘innovators’.

Innovators: The Make or Break of Foldable Phones

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Innovators are a small group of early adopters who tend to have high disposable income and thus splash on sophisticated technology. 

It’s more about owning an expensive product, than actually using it. 

Think of people who bought the first Tesla Roadster or Apple’s Lisa. These weren’t purchases of necessity, but vanity. By appealing to this market, companies like Motorola, Samsung and Huawei can shore up their bottom line, while ensuring that they get more time to test their products in the market. Any issues (and there are a lot of them) can be ironed out in subsequent versions, while ensuring that their profitability isn’t dented. 

Of course, it also costs a lot to build these phones, but keeping their costs just out of reach for the average consumer helps these companies build an aura of aspiration around their product, without the pitfalls of having to repair or replace millions of devices in case of failure. This is a strategy that has served Apple and Tesla well, so therefore it would make sense for companies like Samsung to adopt it for such a new product.

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Teething Issues

Like all new technologies, folding phones have their own issues. Durability being the most prominent. 

Due to the use of flexible OLED displays, the screens on these devices are thinner than usual, which makes them more susceptible to damage. While the clamshell designs of the Z Flip and Razr are meant to negate this, they can’t do much if you drop the device when it is open. 

In an interview to the New York Times, Raymond Soneira, the founder of DisplayMate said:

“There’s no protecting the foldable display in a real-world environment the way that consumers treat their smartphones.” 

This becomes even more evident when you consider the folding mechanism. CNET pushed the Razr to its limits, and found that the device would break after 27,000 cycles of being opened and closed (done with a machine of course). Motorola responded by saying that CNET’s method put undue stress on the hinge, which isn’t a convincing defence. 

You may say that 27,000 sounds like an awfully high number, but it really isn’t. The average person looks at their phone around 80 times per day, which is over 29,000 uses per year. When using a foldable phone, you’d need to pop it open to use it, which means by the current standards, it wouldn’t make it to its first birthday. 

Foldable designs like this cause stress on the hinge and screen, leading to lasting damage.

This brings us back to the question: why make foldable phones at all? 

Folding phones are clearly meant to be the next iteration in smartphone design, like the notch was in the 2010s. The concept does have some advantages, especially as tablets are slowly becoming more powerful. The ability to carry around an iPad-like machine, but pocket it does have an appeal to it. Especially for journalists who are constantly on the move. Folding phones present the advantage of not just a larger screen area, but better multitasking, and improved hardware. A folding phone would allow Samsung and Huawei to compete with Apple’s iPad, without having to create a tablet. 

It’s a promising market with millions of users. There’s clearly enough money to be made here, which is why it’s worth investing in a foldable phone. Since the technology is new and untested, the teething issues are going to take time to resolve. 

Foldable Phones: Fad or Future?

Until the technology is tested to its limits, these phones are going to remain a fad, meant for those with the cash to spare. With the economics of scale, prices for flexible OLED and other parts will come down, allowing companies to offer foldable devices for a much cheaper cost, making them truly mass-market devices; turning them from fad to genuine consumer product.

However, we are still a decade off from that. The 2020s are the decade for experimentation, unlike a notch or the removal of a headphone jack, there isn’t a simple solution to making foldables durable enough. We’ve already seen several different solutions, and neither of them are really great. So more experimentation is required. 

Then there’s also the software, which right now is an absolute mess. 

There’s no universal standard for foldable UI, so there’s no consensus for how these things should feel in terms of software. The biggest UX hurdle is, as of right now, aspect ratio. 

If when unfolded, the device has to maintain a tablet-like aspect ratio of 4:3, that would mean when folded the aspect ratio would become 3:2. It’s a ratio that’s not great for video, which is the dominant mode of media consumption today. Sure, companies can sneak away with this for email, messaging and other non-video tasks, but when it comes to Facebook, TikTok or Instagram, there’s going to be issues. 

Each foldable has it’s own design, making it a challenge for app makers to create a common interface.

Moses Kim at UX Planet has done a great breakdown of the issue. 

Once the devices do become mainstream, it will be up to developers to create an interface that supports them in both modes. As we’ve seen with Android, developer support for the latest features isn’t a regular thing, so it’s hard to imagine them getting excited about more work on a foldable phone that doesn’t make sense for most uses. Just look at Facebook and Twitter’s iPad apps, they aren’t taking advantage of the entire screen. If that’s the support the iPad gets (the world’s best selling tablet) there really isn’t much hope for the foldable. 

So it’s not just hardware, but software that will require great experimentation throughout the next decade to find something that works for everyone. By the 2030s though, expect the foldable phone to be mainstream, with everyone offering at least one model in their yearly line up. 

Any bets on what Apple will call their foldable?


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