Unfolding Before Your Eyes

The future is here–or will be on April 26–and it ain’t cheap.

Unless someone sneaks out a surprise, two months from now, Samsung will have the first folding phone commercially available in the US: the Galaxy Fold.

Though that’s actually a bit of a misnomer. When the device is folded, it looks like a fairly standard high-end phone, albeit one with an unusually narrow screen (1960×840) and really, really wide bezels.

Unfold it and it’s not really a phone anymore. The phone screen winds up on the back (here’s hoping they disable that screen when the device is unfolded) and you get a front-facing seven-inch tablet with a more-than-decent 2152×1536 resolution.

So what do you call it? Ars is saying “phone-tablet hybrid” but that’s a bit of a mouthful. Phablet is already in use and tablone isn’t very inspiring–and it sounds too much like Toblerone.

There’s been a lot of speculation about how well Android is going to handle folding screens, but largely in the context of a screen that folds into a different size and shape. In this case, you’re either using one screen or the other with no on-the-fly reconfiguration. Though, to be fair, it sounds like there’s some communication between screens. That’s a slightly different situation, however, and one that developers already know something about.

Frankly, I can’t see this gaining much traction, even among the early adopters who need every new thing that comes along. It looks prone to breakage (remember Apple’s butterfly keyboard?) and, because the folding screen can’t have a glass cover, likely to scratch easily.

Personally, I think a seven-inch tablet is exactly the right size, but by and large, the market doesn’t agree with me. Fans of eight to ten inch tablets are going to find the Fold’s tablet mode cramped, especially if they try to multitask. Samsung is saying you can display three apps at once, but how large are they going to be when they’ve divvied up those seven inches? I can’t be the only person who’s worried that text will be either too small to read or too large to fit well on a phone-optimized UI.

More important, however, is the price tag. At a whisker short of $2000, there aren’t a whole of people who’ll pick one up on impulse. And, as the iPhone X has shown, even Apple is having trouble convincing the general public to shell out four figures for a phone, no matter how large its screen may be.

When you can pick up a good phone and decent tablet for half the price of the Fold, two grand is going to be a hard sell. That folding screen has to deliver some solid value as a display or it’s going to come off as a gimmick.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a folding display. A tablet I could legitimately fold up and tuck in a pocket sounds like a winning idea.

I just don’t think the Galaxy Fold is the right implementation. Even if I had $2000 to spend on a phone or table right now (I don’t), I’d sit back and see what other phone makers come up with. And I suspect a big chunk of Samsung’s potential market will too.

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.