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Friday, May 24, 2024

Love Them or Hate Them, Folding Phones Are Sticking Around

They're bulky and fragile. They're expensive. They come in peculiar shapes. They may not run all the apps you want. And of course, there’s an annoying crease right in the middle of the screen. But despite those shortcomings, foldable phones are here to stay.

These curious gadgets crawled out of the primordial ooze of science fiction and into reality in late 2019, in the form of the first Samsung Galaxy Fold. The first wave of foldable phones were strange, unwieldy, occasionally broken devices that cost gobs of money and had trouble running apps that could take full advantage of their creased, awkwardly shaped screens. But after a few delays, and after some of the technical kinks were ironed out, foldables from Samsung, Microsoft, and Motorola unfurled themselves into consumers’ hands.

Now that we’re roughly two years into the era of folding mobile screens, the technologies that make them possible—and the software that powers them—are approaching maturity.

Foldables are still very expensive compared to normal smartphones—you’ll pay around $900 for a Samsung Galaxy Z Fold3 and $1,400 for a Motorola Razr—so they are still largely the playthings of technophiles and early adopters. However, more flexible devices are expected to hit the market later this month at the big MWC phone expo in Barcelona, where other manufacturers will be eager to get in on the flippy, bendy action.

It helps their case that these gadgets have actually become competent mobile companions. Some of the newest crop of foldies—like the Galaxies Z Fold3 and Flip3 from Samsung, which came out six months ago—display the sort of polish you’d expect from a high-end, non-folding phone.

“We're starting to see, as you move into second- and third-generation foldables, that some of the early rough edges of those prototype devices are starting to be knocked off,” says Ben Wood, a mobile industry analyst at the market research firm CCS Insight.

Some of the problems that plagued foldables in the early days—screens that peeled away from the body, frames that were too fragile for normal use, apps that crashed too often, creases that grew more pronounced over time—have not vanished, but they’ve ebbed. Now, foldable phones present a more acceptable risk level for a growing number of buyers.

Still, foldables are very much a niche market. Of the 1.5 billion smartphones sold globally in 2021, around 5 million were foldables. That means that roughly one-third of 1 percent of the world’s smartphones have foldable screens. “That’s almost a rounding error,” says Wood.

Foldable may represent a small drop in a great big gadget ocean, but 5 million phones is still a lot of phones. While they initially had niche appeal, foldies have become intriguing—and useful—enough to take them seriously.

“If it was a gimmick, we probably wouldn’t have gotten as far as we’ve gotten today,” Wood says. “You wouldn’t see all of these other manufacturers piling on in the way that they are.” Wood also says he’s been carrying around a Galaxy Z Flip for months and hasn’t encountered any issues.

You can see the growth of foldables clearly with the flurry of eager manufacturers coming into the marketplace. Chinese companies like Huawei, Oppo, Lenovo, and Xiaomi have already shipped folding devices and have more on the way. Rumors have been swirling that Google has been developing a folding version of its Pixel phone as well.

A Galaxy of Possibilities

Samsung, the big kid on the foldables playground, has built a sizable fanbase for its flexible gadgets. Craig Greene, a tech enthusiast in Nebraska, wanted to try a folding mobile phone because he says the concept felt futuristic. He also liked the idea of an all-in-one device, something that could handle everything from simple web browsing to gaming. That said, he’s been using both a Galaxy Fold3 and a Flip3 for months. He says he alternates between the two devices depending on what he’s using them for. The smaller Flip3 is for day trips, when he’s out and about and doesn't want the bulk of the Fold3 weighing down his pockets. Other times, he makes the most of the large-screened Fold3’s multitasking potential by watching a football game at the top of the display, monitoring a Discord chat in the bottom left, and keeping track of fantasy football rankings in the bottom right.

He’s got some gripes. The display’s aspect ratio doesn’t match the 16:9 standard that most developers build their phone apps to match, so videos don’t fill the frame, or text gets cut off at the edges. Greene says he plans to sell one of the phones but hasn’t been able to decide which. Clearly, even these Swiss Army gadgets can’t do it all.

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“Right now I’m enjoying it,” Greene says. “To keep me interested, to keep me wanting to buy them, they’ll have to do a couple things to the device.” His main complaints: The crease in the middle of the screen is annoying, and the battery life is lacking. (The Fold3 can get through the day without a charge, but the smaller Flip3 lasts only a few hours.) Fix those issues, figure out how to fit apps and content into all the weird shapes and sizes foldables come in, and a folding phone almost starts to seem like a reasonable investment for the regular user.

Of course, the excitement around foldables isn’t just about the technical capabilities of the devices. Their novelty breeds curiosity. The form factor is an interesting departure from the same ol’ rectangular slabs people have been using since the mid-2000s. There are always people who will want something new and weird and different simply because it’s new and weird and different. But proponents of foldables like to point to the sheer possibilities that folding phones may herald. That same flexible screen tech could be applied elsewhere, making it a lot easier to contort displays to fit hitherto unforescreened surfaces. Think large-screen televisions that could roll up when not in use, or form-fit screens that wrap around smart speakers or the corners of a room.

“Almost any physical surface can become a screen over time,” Wood says. “It's just that the technology has to get to that stage where it’s cheap enough, robust enough, resilient, and practical enough to be actually able to do that.”

In the meantime, foldable tech has brought about small advancements that can be used to improve the design of normie phones. Making a screen out of flexible materials certainly makes it less durable in some ways, but in principle, a screen that can bend is a screen that’s less likely to crack.

“Making these devices more durable, so at the very least I don't have to go walk around with a cracked screen for nine months of the year,” says Tuong Nguyen, a senior research analyst who studies emerging technologies at Gartner. “That feels like the bigger news to me.”

Maybe folding phones will contort us into a future of infinite screen shapes, bending and stretching across any surface product designers can imagine. Or maybe they’ll just help develop regular screens that don’t shatter when you drop them from anything above knee height. That already feels pretty futuristic right now.

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