Foldable Phones Are Going to Flop
I want to be completely upfront and honest with you. I’ve been trying to get behind the foldable phone concept, but I’m really having a hard time here. It’s without a doubt that the lagging smartphone market needs something to happen, some new kind of trick, in order to shake off the rust and get consumers interested again. And, at the outset, the idea of a phone literally folding in half seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Who wouldn’t love to carry around a smaller device that can expand into a much larger tablet-sized device?
But then these new phones started seeing the light of day.
From what I can tell, and from what I’ve been reading about foldable phones, they’re going to be a massive flop, and we’ve yet to see one actually become available at retail.
Recency bias has me looking at the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which was introduced at the company’s Galaxy Unpacked event. Arguably one of the most anticipated product launches in the past few years for Samsung, the Galaxy Fold appears to be a total letdown on a number of different levels.
Where Foldable Phones Flop
For starters, the Galaxy Fold is plain ugly. The closed device is tall and thin, reminiscent of older portable house phones just with no physical buttons or a TV remote. Then the 4.3-inch cover display turns on and you realize you’ve got about an inch of bezel at the top and bottom of the device. I understand that Samsung and Android probably wanted to avoid writing all kinds of new UI code for a full cover display, but then why settle for this kind of design? The Samsung design team couldn’t come up with something better than this?
And then there’s the fact that this device, when closed, literally looks like two phones stacked on top of one another. Samsung’s not the only tech company to struggle with this—Royole’s FlexPai foldable phone has a wedge-shaped challenge of its own—but this is really a nonstarter for me. I don’t see how anyone will be able to bring themselves to carry around a device that just looks so stinkin’ awkward. And, though I know we rarely use these smartphones as actual phones anymore, trying to physically handle these foldable phones while placing a call looks and feels less than natural. You can pack as much tech into a product as you want, but once you start messing with usability, all you’re doing is creating tons of problems and setting these devices up for failure.
For a product to be a success it needs to not only perform well at its job, it also has to look good while doing it. Design is important to today’s consumer. Without an appealing aesthetic it won’t matter how compelling your product pitch is. Consumers will shy away.
To be fair, these are first-gen-level devices when it comes to this new flexible display technology. I can’t think of a single product line that looked great when first introduced, so it’s likely that foldable phones will improve over time. But they’re not even close right now. And then you add on top of that the price tags we’re seeing—$1,980 for the Galaxy Fold, $1,300 for the FlexPai—and it really starts to become something of a mess for the foldable phone. Consumers have been slow to buy into the premium flagship price points of $1,000. So who exactly are these manufacturers targeting with starting prices above and nearly double that?
Outside the Smartphone Box
The early foldable phone models leave plenty to be desired, but this concept of flexible display technology is really exciting when you start to look beyond the smartphone. We may still be a few years away from compelling foldable phones, but manufacturers have already made a case for flexible displays elsewhere.
To that end, look at LG with their rollable OLED TV that officially launched at CES this year. The 65-inch display literally rolled up right in front of our eyes into a box slightly larger than a standard sound bar. Elsewhere, Microsoft is reportedly interested in developing some sort of foldable laptop, which would suggest a foldable display as well. It’s those types of flexible display implementations that have me excited about the future of the technology.
I get the desire to want to give users a way to make their phones larger. But perhaps Samsung, Royole, and others are approaching this from a completely backwards standpoint. Maybe they ought to consider taking those larger devices—TVs, gaming laptops, etc.—and making them more portable.
You won’t catch me dead with a Galaxy Fold folded up next to my face. But I sure as hell would be interested in whipping a gaming-ready laptop out of my pocket at a moment’s notice.