Samsung really wants you to have the option to buy a foldable phone. It’s not clear if anyone actually cares about this goal — at least, not beyond the intrinsic and momentary coolness of owning a foldable screen — but the company is swearing it’ll deliver the product, come hell or high water.
That’s the message from IFA last week, where the CEO of Samsung’s mobile division DJ Koh told CNBC, “It’s time to deliver” on the promise of a folding-screen device. The problem holding Samsung up? They’re struggling to differentiate the product from a standard tablet, Koh said:
You can use most of the uses … on foldable status. But when you need to browse or see something, then you may need to unfold it. But even unfolded, what kind of benefit does that give compared to the tablet? If the unfolded experience is the same as the tablet, why would they (consumers) buy it?
It’s painful to see self-awareness blossom, only to fall just short of the mark. Koh is, in fact, on to something. Namely: What is the practical use case for a folding phone that isn’t already covered by larger-screen devices and/or tablets?
I’m being serious. Folding screens sound amazing precisely because we’re used to 70+ years of non-folding screens. It’s easy to imagine specific applications for displays that aren’t tethered to rigid materials and a conventional LCD, OLED, or E Ink panel. What’s not clear is whether these use cases make any particular sense for a phone.
First, any folding screen is going to require a hinge structure to stabilize the other half of the display. It’s going to be more complex to manufacture. It’s going to inevitably be thicker in folded-down configuration than a traditional phone, and while we’ve railed against the relentless focus on thickness from manufacturers as opposed to focusing on other aspects of the device experience, the fact that devices are generally perceived as “thin enough” by consumers doesn’t mean anybody wants to carry a folded-over version of their current device.
Samsung’s desire to make a device that offers different features and benefits from a tablet is admirable, but the difficulty of building those features may be a sign that the form factor is not, in and of itself, particularly innovative or interesting. Yes, it’s a tremendous accomplishment to build a foldable screen and to put that screen in a smartphone. This is not in dispute. But lost in the conversation is the simple fact that not every technological innovation is a benefit to the product in question. It’s possible, for example, to build a high-end gaming PC inside a car. The reason no one does this (and no, dedicated self-driving hardware isn’t the same thing) is that there’s virtually no practical benefit to building a high-end gaming PC inside a vehicle. Even modern high-end vehicles with advanced infotainment systems, embedded LCDs, and integrated driver assistance don’t require the equivalent of a Core i7-8700K and GTX 1080 Ti to do what they do.
It’s not clear that foldable screens on phones are much different. The “I want a smartphone with a larger screen” problem is already solved. It’s called a tablet. A foldable screen could make sense if the device was usable in folded or unfolded mode, but there’s no practical way to offer that kind of feature — you can’t use a pivot joint and the screen wouldn’t be able to stretch far enough to allow for a 360-degree hinge.
It’s not Samsung’s fault that true advances in user experiences and the way people use devices tend to happen slowly and over long periods of time. You can make a very real argument that we’ve seen only had a handful of fundamental shifts in how people use computers, starting with the advent of keyboards and monitors, moving to mice and GUIs, and finally the rise of the touch screen and the all-screen smartphone. Folding screens are nifty, and the technology will undoubtedly have a number of applications, but we’re fundamentally dubious that they’re going to do anything to revolutionize the phone.
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