Foldable smartphones...and the next revolution

March 20, 2019

Abdullah Asiri

“EVERY once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” These were the words uttered by Steve Jobs during the unveiling of the first iPhone, which was indeed a revolutionary product that made phones “smart”.

For the last 12 years smartphones have been stuck in the loop of getting better in terms of hardware and software until it reached a limit where it did not make a huge difference. It reached a stage where there was little to differentiate between brands. And in some models there were few upgrades to the extent that a 3-year-old smartphone worked as good as a new one.

Other than concept prototypes showcased at CES, there was no real revolutionary product in 2019 event. But there were glimpses of the new wave of the future, with global brands touting foldable devices as the next frontier for smartphones.

Samsung took the first step and revealed the Galaxy Fold, the biggest leap into the next generation smartphones since the first iPhone. Two separate displays — a 4.6 inches display when it’s folded, and 7.3 inches unfolded. Samsung showcased a live demo of the phone and revealed how the folding mechanism works that allowed for the phone to change sizes. But it was the software feature “app continuity” that really caught the eye. The feature enables a seamless transition between the displays without affecting what’s on your screen. The Fold allows for multitasking — using up to 3 apps at the same time. The Fold comes with 7nm SD 855 processor, 12 GB of RAM, 4380 mAh battery, and the specs are topnotch.

Soon on the heels of Samsung, Huawei announced the Mate X, their new foldable phone. Unlike the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X has only one screen that unfolds outwardly. It is 6.6 inches when it’s folded, 8.0 inches unfolded. It has a 7nm 980 Kirin processor, 8 or 12 GB of RAM, 5G support and has included an unbelievably 55w fast charging facility, which charges the 4500 mAh battery to 85% in only 30 minutes. The Mate X looks more futuristic with the bezel-less display, 5.4mm thin when it’s unfolded, and the “Falcon Wing Mechanical Hinge”, as Huawei calls it, leaves no gap when the phone is folded.

The first issue for both of these ‘smart’ pieces of cutting edge technology is its costs. The Galaxy Fold is priced at $1,980 for the 4G model, and over $2,000 for the 5G model, while the Huawei Mate X is priced at $2,600, that’s $300 more than a 15-inch MacBook Pro.

The second issue that could be a cause for concern is the hinge durability; for moving parts inside phones are subject to fail very often from heavy use.

It’s understandable to be faced with high prices and concerns — at least for now — as this is a new frontier, and the technology that allows for mass production of such complicated designs is not available yet. Once the foldable devices are mass produced, then prices will surely fold. Also with every new device, the upgrades and sophistication takes over only in the later models, leaving the early models only for the initiated and tech-savvy.

The question, however, I pose is, that whether this is the next ‘revolutionary product that is set to change everything’? If so, what does it or expects to change?

If we look back, the first revolution changed the concept of what phones can do, and phones evolved in terms of design, hardware and software around this new concept. Now that phones can do pretty much everything, what is the concept that the foldable phones bring with them?

Sure, it attempts to redefine smartphones as they become an extension of us. Just like a one-stop-shop allows for ease of custom, this new concept is a step towards the idea of one device for everything. By offering much bigger screen, foldable phones blur the line between phones and tablets. Will it succeed?

Likely. And that is only if it’s backed by a revolutionary software that magnifies the phone’s ability to do more heavy tasks. The foldable device has shown the world that it is ready to take multitasking to the next level, allowing for a person to do heavier tasks then what a normal smartphone can do. But unless the upgrades take a progressive uptick on the effort and ease factors, the foldables could prove to be a bitter pill like the tablet.

Tablets were welcomed as a replacement for laptops but didn’t really succeed due to software limitations, with the iPad being the only tablet that’s doing a bit better because of Apple’s great ecosystem.

It is also because of this ecosystem a foldable iPhone will have better chance to succeed. Talks of Apple patenting a foldable device soon are in the air, as is talks of concept foldable iPhones. We’ll have to find out what will be Apple’s response to foldable phones? Or, as is Apple’s tendency, will it take a different approach to the next revolutionary product?

We’ll have to wait till next September.

March 20, 2019
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