With both the Samsung Fold and the Huawei Mate X due out this year, there will be folks walking around with folding phones by the summer. Motorola is prepping its own folding phone, Xiaomi has shown off an interesting but still hypothetical three-way folding prototype, and Bloomberg reports that Samsung is already prepping to bring two more types of folding phones to market. (My own advice: unless you want to pay a lot to help phone manufacturers field-test first-generation devices: Don’t buy a folding phone for the foreseeable future.)
But foldable phones still represent one of the biggest form-factor changes that have hit smartphones in a long time, and the range of companies taking their own shots at the new technology mean the Samsung Fold and the Huawei Mate X likely won’t be one-and-done experiments. But as folding phones start to show up on store shelves, it’s helpful to remember what happened in 2015, when modular smartphones seemed like they were the wave of the future and then quietly fizzled out.
So what will be the major milestones folding phones will need to hit to make them a viable form factor? One of the first challenges will be figuring out ways to make the hardware, software, and UX all work together in seamless unity. Both Samsung and Huawei have kept their folding phones out of the hands of journalists and reviewers so far, with very slight exceptions, meaning a lot of this is still being figured out.
It’s not just a matter of how smoothly the physical hinges work as the phone unfurls into tablet mode, but whether the underlying software is equally smooth. If I’m writing an email and want to expand out my workspace so I can drop in a link, how well does a folding phone handle that task? Smartphone UX still orbits entirely around the assumption that I, the user, focus on only one app at a time; there have been many attempts by various phone makers to make it easier to work in a split-screen mode, but none that I’ve tried that are satisfying to use. (And, it should be said, tablets aren’t much better).
Another make-or-break for folding phones: glass. As detailed by Brian Barrett in Wired, the folks at Corning, who supply the Gorilla Glass found in iPhones and a huge number of other smartphones, are working on creating scratch-resistant glass tensile enough to be used in a folding phone. Samsung, Huawei, and others hitting the market right now with folding phones will be using polymers (i.e., plastic), which is much more flexible. But there are two reasons why virtually every non-bendy smartphone on the market uses glass: it withstands scratches much better than plastic, and glass feels much better to the touch than plastic. (Think of the tactile difference between running your finger along an acrylic airplane window and the passenger window of a car.) In 2017, Motorola tried to attack one of the biggest pain points for smartphone users with its Moto Z2 Force, featuring a “shatterproof” plastic screen. The phone was a dud — it picked up scratches remarkably fast, looked cloudy even before it got scratched up, and just felt cheap to the touch.
And then there’s Apple, the maker of the world’s most popular phone. Per Bloomberg, Tim Cook tried to pep up investors at a shareholders’ meeting by announcing that the company was “planting seeds” and “rolling the dice” on future products that will “blow you away.” And Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Wamsi Mohan said that based on his observations of the Asian supply chain, he believes Apple is working on a folding phone for 2020. Sure, analysts get rumors about Apple wrong on a regular basis, and Cook could have been teasing anything from augmented reality smartglasses to some nice new AirPods that work better with Siri. But if Apple were to put out its own foldable phone, the form would gain a great deal of legitimacy; Cupertino, especially under Cook, rarely makes big bets unless it feels fairly certain there’s a market there.
But the thing that will determine whether we will one day talk about that weird time when we all used non-folding phones, of course, is cost. There’s consumer cost: I understand the appeal of a phone you can hold one-handed while waiting for your bus and then unfold once you find a seat, but very, very few consumers are going to bite when the price of that unfolding phone is twice that of a top-tier, non-folding phone. And then there’s production cost: how much manufacturers are paying to build folding phones versus how much they’re selling them for. I have no idea what the margins are on the Samsung Fold or the Huawei Mate X, but I’m guessing $2,000 is pretty close to as low as they could go without taking a complete bath; at this point, you just need people to buy the thing rather than make fat margins on it. But for folding phones to have a future, they have to be both somewhat affordable, even as a high-end luxury phone like those in the Samsung Note series, and also make enough money for manufacturers that they can turn a profit.
But to zoom out a bit, the folding phone hype is taking place while another piece of tech is rolling out, one that’s harder to see or make a cool video about, but which will absolutely be more transformative than any folding phone: incredibly fast 5G data networks. For some people who spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, the future of mobile computing is moving away from rectangular chunks of metal carried around in people’s pockets and toward a constellation of devices people will wear and use depending on the context of what they’re doing. That vision was always hemmed in by the limitations of battery power, the relative slowness of 4G LTE networks, and latency — all things 5G networks will be able to improve on. If Apple or one of its competitors is able to leverage 5G to build an ecosystem in which a smartwatch is used for quick visual cues and notifications, wireless earbuds are there for voice commands and audio, and AR glasses can give you a larger screen, the folding phone will look like a bendy curio, or maybe just the last gasp of the smartphone before it disappears altogether.