Okay, foldable phones are almost here, with Samsung’s Unpacked 2019 announcement leaving little doubt about the much anticipated Galaxy X reveal. When the concept was initially aired, a few years ago, it seemed sci-fi to be honest – we were so used to the rigid glass displays and the form factor that a bending phone seemed more of a fantasy than a reality for the near future.
Now, thanks to some technological magic, Samsung will be using a polymer (not glass) to create the folding display, called the Infinity Flex, creating a new form factor which will allow users to seamlessly switch between a smaller, mobile display and a larger tablet form. Who wouldn’t want one of these?
The question, however, is whether the new Galaxy X will kick start a new era, a future where all phone manufacturers will release foldable devices and fight for market share, or it will die a fad until a better take on the concept is executed by someone else?
Let’s look back at 2011
2011 had a major development in terms of smartphones. I am talking about the original Galaxy Note N7000. When it was first revealed in October 2011, it was hated by many. I remember tech sites regularly publishing opinions about how it would never work, and how a phablet was too impractical. There were debates about whether it would fit pockets on jeans or chinos.
I still went ahead and got one, and boy did I love it. The screen size, 5.3 inches, was massive compared to whichever long-forgotten Android phone I upgraded from. The pen, though not very practical was a great new thing to experience, and even though I stopped using most of the gimmicky software features (like doodling and handwriting notes), I had gotten so used to the screen real estate that I could never go back to a smaller phone.
At that time though, friends and family thought the phone was ridiculous, it was too big, and I used to get frequent stares on the street every time I put the phone to my ear for a call. Detractors were many, but soon everything changed.
According to official figures, in less than a year since its release, the Galaxy Note sold over 10 million units and suddenly we had major manufacturers fighting to release the biggest displays (Sony being one example) and then, in less than 3 years, Apple came out with the iPhone 6 Plus, despite having advocated the “optimal” smaller screen size for years.
If there was one thing the Note 1 got wrong, it was perhaps the aspect ratio, which was 16:10, making it wider than one would have liked, and now, looking back at it, I do think it could have been so much better if the aspect ratio was 16:9. However, regardless, the phone made phablets household devices and now smaller screens are relegated to niche devices.
Can Samsung repeat this with the Galaxy X?
This is perhaps the biggest question right now, even for Samsung itself. The release of a foldable phone can be an iconic moment due to several reasons. Firstly, it is clear that in recent years, innovation, when it comes to smartphones, has somewhat stalled. Apple, which claims to be the most innovative company is ridiculed year after year for not pushing the boundary as much as people expect it to.
We went from big bezels to thinner bezels to almost no bezels to a slightly curved display to a complete, nearly edge-to-edge screen (with a notch). Clearly, the fight right now is all about screen size. Even Samsung’s own attempt, the S Pen, has not really caught on as a major draw – people just seem to want bigger and better screens is all. But how big can a phone get? The latest iPhone XS Max is already sporting a massive 6.5-inch display with a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. And this is a phone which has no more room to grow without getting even bigger (there are no bezels left).
How about alternatives?
Without straying away from the main question, let’s discuss alternatives to achieve the demand for more screen real estate. One option is to have a display at the back of the phone, which is not new, we already have the YotaPhone (pictured below) with an E-ink back display. But this isn’t really groundbreaking, and having two detached screens does not equal one big one.
Secondly, some people argue that phones do not have to be in the current form factor anyway. They discuss wearables as the future, and while that may be true in the long run, the reality is that wearables, at their current stage, are not able to replace the mobile phone. We can take examples of Apple Watch and Google Glass.
Both wearables were much hyped, and while Apple Watch was able to find a place for itself, Google Glass has been relegated to the niche, interesting device category. Even with the Apple Watch, it is mostly used as a supplementary device, popular because of its fitness-related features. People still want a mobile device and that is not going to change for the foreseeable future.
Foldable phones actually have a shot
Coming back to the question of foldable phones having a long-term future – trends indicate that they should. Most people own two devices, a mobile phone, and a tablet, one for communication and one for content consumption. As a matter of fact, most of us have too many devices, a phone, a small tablet, a bigger tablet, a laptop, and a smartwatch. If anything, people are not looking to reduce the number of devices rather than increasing them further, and foldable phones seem to be a step in that direction.
I can at least see myself replacing my phone and my iPad Mini with a single foldable phone. It does sound very convenient, to be able to switch from a standard phone display to a bigger tablet display on the go, without having to change devices. But there are still some questions which need to be answered.
Challenges for the Galaxy X
One of the key considerations mobile users have is that of battery life. The larger the display the more battery capacity it needs to last throughout the day. With our iPads and other tablets, we often have the luxury of having them connected to a charger while we lounge at home, or using the device for a few hours at max on the go. With a foldable phone serving as both our primary communication device and media consumption tablet, battery concerns are likely to arise, since you want your phone to last throughout the day, but might be tempted to use the tablet form longer than you would otherwise.
While it is yet unknown whether Samsung is packing a massive battery in the device or not, this is a concern that may discourage or disappoint potential users.
Moving forward we also can not ignore physics – anything that is repeatedly bent tends to wear out, and while we don’t expect our phones to last 10 years, it is not clear how much bending the Galaxy X will be able to take. With a new form factor, you can expect people to play around with it more than they normally would, and Samsung will need to account for that.
The device’s actual size and form are also very important, and Samsung has, to date, kept that a secret. How big is it going to be? How bulky? How heavy? These are questions which will inevitably sway users. The phone is naturally going to be thicker with this new form factor, and that may also be a deal breaker for some buyers.
The issues surrounding the form factor are quite real because Samsung’s Galaxy X is not the first foldable phone in the market. That’s actually the Royole FlexPai (pictured below, courtesy the Verge).
The Royole FlexPai, being the first official foldable phone, is unsightly and suffers from several functionality issues.
Finally, we have the price factor – with Apple experiencing the effect of high prices on sales, it remains to be seen how Samsung will price the Galaxy X. For reference, the Royole FlexPai pictured above retails for around $1,300.
Overcoming these challenges will largely affect how the Galaxy X is received by the masses. Truth be told, it has great potential to become a game-changing device but is as likely to fall into a fad category if the UI and UX fall short.
For what it’s worth, I am sure tech fans are going to give it a try and Samsung may even sell a lot of devices merely based on hype and having pushed something new, but long-term adoption and a repeat of the Galaxy Note episode will depend on how the upside of having a huge screen compares to the downsides, such as the bulkiness, form factor, and user experience.
If Samsung does get it right though, it will be most interesting to see how Apple comes back with its own take on a foldable iPhone.
Concluding note on the future of foldable displays
Even though we mainly discussed the Samsung Galaxy X, foldable displays can significantly change the way we interact with technology. As the tech is refined further and other companies jump into the mix, we can expect even larger foldable displays which can replace our laptops and perhaps even our desks at some point, bringing scenes from sci-fi movies into reality. Interestingly, foldable displays do not need to be rectangular, they can be shaped into other geometrical figures and that means we can have foldable display wearables and more.
Tune in for the Samsung Unpacked 2019 event on February 20, 2019, 11 AM PST to get the first real look at Samsung’s foldable phone. Meanwhile, share your thoughts with us via comments.