Smartphones Are About to Get Weird

As sales slow, phone-makers may get gimmicky

Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold at the 2019 Mobile World Congress. Photo: Adria Puig/Anadolu Agency/Getty

TThe future is foldable, if smartphone makers are to be believed. At Mobile World Congress in February, Samsung announced that it would release a futuristic folding phone at the end of April for an eye-popping $1,980.

The Galaxy Fold unfurls from a phone into a tablet-sized device. It’s mesmerizing to watch people use this device, like something out of a science-fiction movie. Huawei, Xiaomi, and others have already announced their own rival foldable gadgets. Apple is rumored to be looking into the technology. Foldable screens may soon be everywhere.

This just leaves one simple question: Why?

Credit: Samsung

Foldable devices are one possible solution to a problem many of the world’s biggest tech manufacturers are worried about: shrinking smartphone sales. Our phones are lasting longer than ever, which is great for consumers who don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars every year but not so great for manufacturers who want those consumers to buy new phones every year. The current state of technology isn’t going to do it; companies need something flashy, marketable, and entirely original to make consumers willing to trade in their current phones for a pricier new model. A phone that folds is just one possibility; weirder is going to be better for the next wave of smartphones.

Smartphone manufacturers looking to boost their sales may benefit, but the advantages to consumers are more questionable. Foldable phones offer few benefits over a conventional iPhone or Android device. There’s more screen to break and delicate hinge mechanisms, potentially raising the cost of repairs should something go wrong — and something usually goes wrong with first-generation technology. Official Android support for these devices isn’t even available yet. And if you look closely at Samsung’s Galaxy Fold announcement, you’ll see awkwardly sized screens that don’t totally fill the allotted space.

The current reality is that the companies marketing foldable phones have failed to come up with a compelling pitch for how they’ll improve your life. One possibility is allowing you to multitask — like playing games and messaging at the same time. Multitasking is, of course, already available to some extent on devices like the Galaxy Note, and it’s unclear whether anyone asked for it to begin with.

Huawei’s Mate X foldable phone. Credit: Huawei

It’s been 10 years since Apple unveiled the iPhone and started the race to build the perfect computer for carrying everything digital everywhere. But the basic rectangular smartphone arguably has reached its perfect, final form: What else is there to do other than to make it faster, thinner, or a different color? (Hello, coral iPhones!)

Sensing this, Apple quietly shifted to a three-year cycle for overhauling the design of the iPhone, even as its competition is struggling to innovate as well. Huawei, Samsung, and Xiaomi’s phone designs historically have looked to the iPhone for inspiration, but now they’re left to their own devices to find something — anything — that can stimulate sales and make it feel like 2016 again.

Flexible display technology arrived at the right moment for smartphone-makers hunting for a way to differentiate their increasingly similar products. Samsung and LG are the largest screen manufacturers in the world, supplying displays for almost every device in existence, and they’ve been working on flexible displays in secret for years, struggling to build them in sustainable quantities until now.

Credit: Nokia

It doesn’t stop with screens. Suddenly, phone-makers are in an arms race over how many cameras can be crammed onto the back of a single device. Nokia is launching a Pureview phone with a five-camera array on the back, purportedly to offer more depth and zoom options than traditional smartphone cameras.

Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S10, due to be released this month, also sports five lenses. And soon, there’ll be many more, with Sony and Xiaomi partnering with camera-array manufacturer Light to build their own versions.

Meanwhile, Energizer is getting into the smartphone manufacturing game by gluing an enormous battery to a phone that helps it last 50 days on a single charge.

Smartphone companies are trying to kill the notch with punch-hole cameras and pop-up selfie lenses driven by motors. There are even full-sized smartphones with sliding physical keyboards.

Anything goes because nobody knows what will stick yet. But the whole thing feels like razor companies adding ever more blades to their cartridges — changes being made for the sake of changes.

Here’s the thing: The phone industry has a history of bizarre experiments and bad ideas. From the teardrop-shaped Nokia 7600 to the stumpy Microsoft Kin, all of those ideas were doomed, but they did help propel the entire industry forward.

When Apple jumped in with the iPhone, it had designed the perfect smartphone. It delivered beautiful hardware with slick lines — and everyone else emulated it. Over the years, fun, quirky ideas have disappeared in favor of fashion. And now we’re coming full circle: The smartphone, perfected, has become boring. Apple seems to sense this, too, as it’s adding color back to its devices with the iPhone XR lineup.

The foldable phone trend is almost certainly going to blow over in a matter of months. We might see them again, but they’ll inevitably disappear for a number of years as manufacturers iterate on the idea and shrink down the parts involved. In the mad rush to get something new and innovative out the door, this generation of foldables will be clunky, broken, or just plain unusable. We’ll look back and laugh at how silly the ideas were.

But this is always how it begins. Expect the unexpected from here on out.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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