Foldable phones: revolution or fantasy?
Last year, we witnessed the usage of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality on mobile phones, and the establishment of 5G networks. Though 5G is still topical, foldable phones were the hot topic this year.
By Shuzhao Xue
Mobile World Congress 2019, the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry, ended March 1 this year. The event provides a platform for phone makers to showcase both their ambition and their novel, advanced technology for next-generation mobile phones. Last year, we witnessed the usage of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality on mobile phones, and the establishment of 5G networks. Though 5G is still topical, foldable phones were the hot topic this year.
As a person born in the digital era, I have experienced the sheer speed of technological development: I saw the rise and tragic fall of Nokia, and witnessed the birth of the Apple empire. I’ve used various kinds of mobile phones – flip phones, slider phones, side slider phones and swivel phones. Until recently, I have been ‘loyal’ to smartphones with large touch screens as they monopolized the market until, this year, Samsung and Huawei developed a new form of smartphone – foldable phones.
Foldable phones, which in my eyes are a combination of a phone and a tablet, seem revolutionary. From the era of bar phones to current smartphones with full screens, the design and development of phones seems to be focused on achieving one thing: a larger screen in a portable size. Foldable screens are an attempt by the industry to achieve a larger display. They break through the limits of a phone’s screen size but can still easily be put in the pocket.
What do we normally do with phones? We text friends and family, make (video) calls, read news, take photos, upload them on social media, watch videos, and play games. We mostly entertain ourselves with phones. With a larger screen, it is possible for us to improve the quality of these entertainment experiences; the shift from multi-task switch to multitasking is the most obvious experience people could get with foldable phones. In the past, we could only use one application at a time. Though split screen mode was available, it was not efficient. But with foldable phones which have a larger screen, multiple apps running at the same time is both possible and efficient.
The first generation of foldable phones also function as signs of differentiation between companies. With the Galaxy Fold, Samsung is proving its place as a leader of vertical integration. Galaxy Fold uses Samsung’s own AMOLED screen which has been developed over 8 years, and it folds from outside to inside with a larger curvature of infolding screen. As for Huawei, they are trying to prove to the public that they can do what other companies are doing, but even better: advertising themselves as the “World’s fastest foldable 5G phone”.
But are these developments in vain? Since last year, the mobile phone industry has been confronted with an ice-cold winter. Throughout 2018, the global smartphone market experienced negative growth for five consecutive quarters. Nowadays, people do not change their mobile phones as frequently as before. On average, it takes a consumer 32 months to update their phone.
It is becoming much harder to have revolutionary hardware on mobile phones and fewer shipments mean more pressure for manufacturers. A new, creative and impressive product is needed.
With foldable phones broadening the usage of a phone, there is a possibility for opening up a growth point for the industry and its companies. After all, the main goal of a business is to make money and developing technology is merely a coproduct for the business. Providing a small number of foldable phones at an unbelievably high price is a smart move in terms of grabbing market share, but their price and quantity can also be obstacles for consumers when deciding whether to update their phone.
One problem with foldable phones is there is little difference in user experiences between opening and folding up. There are three elements to be taken into consideration when talking about consumer experience: the adaptation of applications, the battery life and the surface materials of screens. Though a foldable phone is a pad-size phone while open, in practice, it is still a phone. The majority of applications on Androids are only for mobile phones. Though a foldable phone has a larger screen, the layout of apps is simply stretched from the original app. That is, a disproportionate layout may appear but the function is almost the same. Besides, the battery life does not increase much; portability and battery life are two contradictory problems that should be solved. Longer power means giving up portability, which thereby making foldable phones much heavier and thicker than current phones. And a portable, foldable phone has to sacrifice battery life. And in addition, the constant folding of screens will lead to wear and tear on screen materials.
In the invitation letter for the Huawei Mate X launch event, it claims to be “connecting the future.” If it pictures a future with everyone holding a foldable phone, with a large screen whose function is the use of multiple applications at the same time, I would say this is only a fantasy. Foldable phones do represent a quantitative change in screen technology, but the qualitative change is still unclear. It is an idealistic and symbolic concept, but unlike the iPhone, it’s hard to see it changing the industry forever.
Shuzhao Xue is a Master’s Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the Amsterdammer.