What is the point of foldable phones?
The world of mobile phone technology has been largely stagnant for a while now. An improved screen or a new handset material can’t hide the fact that there hasn’t been a major revolution since the introduction of the iPhone. Phones have become iterative.
This situation has been possible due to the market growing at an almost unbelievable rate. Literally billions of customers entered the smartphone market over the past decade, and in-built obsolescence – where the phone is designed to fail after two years so you must buy a new one – guaranteed that sales numbers grew even faster.
With 2018 marking the first year of declining mobile phone sales ever, new thought was needed at long last to re-engage the richest markets where almost everyone who wants a smart phone already has one. Even the dubious practice of designing handsets with in-built obsolescence can only go so far and does nothing to combat the apathy inspired by a never-ending line of similar products. Why rush to buy the latest model when it is basically the same as the one you currently have?
Enter Samsung and Huawei. The two mobile phone giants, from Korea and China respectively, have this week unveiled a product which might give the industry a shot in the arm: the foldable phone.
This is an impressive technical achievement which will have taken many years to perfect. The sort of thin, adaptable screen technology which these phones require is incredibly impressive. The complex gearing system which allows the screens to fold without crumpling is a fantastic feat of engineering.
However, the obvious question remains: what is the point of a foldable phone?
The modern smart phone is a small pocket-sized block which connects to satellites orbiting the earth and gives access to the sum total of human knowledge wherever you are in the world, and it also has a high quality camera attached. That is a clear purpose which is easy to sell.
The foldable phone is all of that with a slightly bigger screen, which… is fine, but it sounds like a tablet with a US$2,000 price tag. It is an innovation in the smart phone market, but it is unclear if it will cross over and have mainstream appeal beyond rich early-adopters and people who review technology on the internet.
Will this be enough to persuade people that they need a new device? If Samsung, Huawei and other companies can’t persuade the general public that foldable phones are a vital part of life, the new technology will fail and these companies will lose a lot of money.
On the other hand, what if this device can persuade people that they do not need a separate tablet? If that is what ends up happening, the market is potentially huge.
If the foldable phone can escape the trap of being a mere gimmick then it may begin to alter perceptions and make late-adopting companies, for instance Apple, look irretrievably stuck in the past. Once that happens there will be an arms race and prices will start to come down rapidly. This is the big bet underlying the first foldable phones, and it will be fascinating to see how it all pans out.
Photo credit: Huawei 2019