Get Bent

Samsung has been playing coy about their plans for a foldable phone. It’s on. It’s off. We’re experimenting. It’s just a rumor.

Sheesh. Get your stories straight, guys.

Anyway, the current story–according to Gizmodo, anyway–is that they’ll be releasing a folding phone Real Soon Now. (Gizmodo speculates that it could be announced in November with shipping in early 2019.)

And my reaction is “Why?”

Samsung’s claim is that it won’t just be a tablet that folds down into a more convenient size for carrying. Somehow, they say, every feature will “have a meaningful message to our end customer.”

While I hope that means something more than “Ha, ha, Samsung’s got all your money now!” I’m not really optimistic. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen too many technologies deployed in ways that look pretty but don’t take actual use into account. (I’m thinking particularly of all the variations on hinges in 2-in-1 laptops. They look great and do a nice job of folding the keyboard back out of sight, but give you no weight savings in tablet mode and leaving you vulnerable to accidental keystrokes whenever you shift position.)

What kind of feature or functionality can you put in a folding phone that you can’t put in a tablet? Presumably, something that works when the phone is folded. So, a second screen on the back? Maybe. But that’s been done, with limited success. And variations on the idea with normal, non-folding phones–using part of the screen to display information when the phone is locked–are largely underwhelming. Has anyone actually gotten excited over the time/battery/notification display on their phone’s lock screen?

And then there’s the impact a second screen will have on battery life. Android Pie does seem to have extended the useful life of a charge on my phone, but it does that by aggressively turning things off. Adding more hardware would just take away all the savings better software brings.

We shouldn’t forget that Samsung led the push to get multitasking into Android, so maybe they’ve got some ideas around that. But again, what distinguishes a folding screen from a non-folding one of similar size? Apps resizing themselves when the screen real estate changes? Well…consider how many times you’ve seen an app trip over its own feet when you rotate your tablet.

I’m probably missing something. Samsung has a lot of talented engineers, and hardware design is a field where more heads are better than one. I’m sure they’ve got something in mind to deliver that “meaningful message.”

I have no doubt Samsung’s folding device–or devices–will look pretty. I’m even confident they’ll have some “folding-only features”. But something so spectacular and impossible to reproduce without a folding screen that it’ll drive adoption of a new form factor? I’ll believe that when I see it.

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