Flipping, folding, and rolling devices are coming into the mainstream for Android users – but do any of them matter until Apple makes one?
Foldable phones were going to be the future of smartphones. Wanneer Samsung introduced the first Galaxy Fold it was described as a “new dimension for our phone and our life”, something that “doesn’t just define a new category [maar] defies category.”
Soos dit blyk, one category for the phone would have been “broken”. Numerous journalists reported their phone screens breaking in a matter of days. It wasn’t the only one, but it was the most infamous. Sedertdien, egter, the smartphone giants have designed and iterated new devices.
There are two major kinds of foldable devices: those that that fold like a book, such as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2, Huawei Mate X2, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix Fold, en Microsoft’s Surface Duo; and those that flip, like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola’s iconic Razr. There is also the occasional wild card, like Oppo’s ‘rollable’ X concept that unwinds like a scroll, of tri-fold devices from the likes of TCL.
Many of these phones have serious benefits: the ability to check notifications quickly and easily using the Motorola Razr’s small screen is very neat and will even run some Android apps – albeit with limited capabilities compared to their full-screen modes. While it’s difficult to flip open with one hand, the snap when closing it after a call is particularly satisfying too.
It should also not be understated that having a full 6.2-inch screen fold into a 10cm x 7cm x 2cm body is incredibly convenient, and it collapses totally with no gap between when the screen is closed.
The Huawei Mate X2, intussen, is a great device to read and watch content on, with text and video loading well – as one might hope. Its hardware is polished with a number of choice design decisions behind it: it folds, amper, completely flat, and is weighted slightly more to the right, making it easier to hold in one hand.
This wedged body also means Huawei can house a periscope camera and, although Die Onafhanklike is yet to use the Galaxy Z Fold 2, it appears to have a better proportioned screen on the ‘front’ when it is closed compared to Samsung’s narrower display. None of that makes up for the lack of Google services, but it gives Huawei serious capabilities in international markets, most obviously China.
We also have yet to use Microsoft’s Surface Duo, but capabilities like streaming Xbox games and using the bottom half of the screen as a handheld controller already shows a compelling future.
Oppo’s rollable concept, although we had only a short amount of time to use, feels less like a smartphone and more like a compactable tablet. Sliding the right of the device expands its 6.7-inch screen into a 7.4-inch one via a pair of motors, which pull the screen out from the left to the right, like a roll of wrapping paper.
Oppo tells me there is, theoretically at least, no limit to how far out a device might ‘roll’ – although physics dictates that as it gets wider it would be easier to snap. This seems much more adept for a tablet used mainly at home, contracting inwards when it needs to be transported, than taking out and about where it is liable to break (or start unrolling in your pocket from an absent-minded touch).
Yet despite it being three years since the first folding phone, the form-factor has yet to properly get its grip on the market – for both cultural, and technological reasons.
The technological first: every foldable phone on the market runs Android’s operating system, en Google has neglected to develop that for tablets, which is what the larger foldable phones turn into. Apple’s iPads have been critically and commercially superior, to the extent that even Huawei’s new HarmonyOS Android-layer mimics Apple’s designs.
Seeing Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 open, and load Instagram in the centre of the screen, a black bar on either size and a visible crease down the middle, is a testament to how poor competition in this market is – with developers unlikely to adapt unless absolutely necessary. “Google still has a long way to go to get where Apple is with the iPad in terms of a tablet experience”, Anshel Sag, an analyst from Moor Insights & Strategy, vertel Die Onafhanklike, “and there simply are not very many true competitors, indien enige, against the iPad.”
That leads on to the second issue: form factors. Currently there are two major ones, either flipping and folding, but that could change. Brands are likely to “experiment” with form factors, Counterpoint Research’s Neil Shah says, but tells Die Onafhanklike that he predicts “one or two form-factors” will dominate at scale because the yield rates for the displays are low, which keeps the costs high.
High costs used to be the mantra for why foldable phones are unpopular but although they remain expensive that argument is slowly being chipped away. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 is only a few hundred pounds more than the most expensive iPhone 12 Pro, and those buyers want the best. If a foldable experience is the future, why not spend a little extra – comparatively speaking – to live there?
The answer to that seems more cultural than technological. We don’t know what we want foldable phones to do, or how we want to interact with them. Since the iPhone made the touch-screen ubiquitous all phones – Android or iOS – behave in basically the same way. That’s not true for foldable phones.
Flip phones, much like smartwatches, are made to be ignored – dismissing a call decisively when flipping it shut or, in the opposite way, opened them up with a one-handed flourish. It declares your use of the device in a much more conscious way than a glass rectangle that automatically unlocks when it detects your face.
Foldable phones, intussen, are made for intensive use; a full-screen device on the outside, a huge, two-handed screen on the inside that commands your full attention in a way that even our all-too-addictive devices now do not. Even the Surface Duo, Microsoft’s Android phone which does not have a screen on the outside, represents this; you are either using this device entirely, or it is closed.
Oppo’s rollable will most likely be the passive middle-ground – a regular smartphone until you need to watch Netflix, or YouTube – but whether that works in the real world remains to be seen.
The final, and most powerful, cultural signifier is the one that Android manufactures have the least control over: appel. Much like the Apple Watch, which has overtaken the entire Swiss watch industry, the aforementioned iPad, or even smaller innovations like its new AirTags tracking tech, foldable phones are unlikely to reach their true potential until Apple makes one.
“Apple is the only vendor on the planet which can help scale a particular technology or component types. Without scale it’s difficult to lower the costs of displays and the foldables could remain $1000 and above until Apple launches the devices”, Shah told Die Onafhanklike, although there is some disagreement on that view.
The influence of Samsung, or Huawei in China, should not be underestimated, Sag predicts. They will set the bar of what a foldable device can do before Apple reaches it themselves – but the power of Apple remains undeniable.
“There is no doubt that Apple will have its own unique approach to foldables that will likely bridge iOS and iPadOS”, Sag adds. “Apple’s approach will be admittedly unique, but I also believe it will adopt many of the usages and experiences that Huawei, Samsung, and Xiaomi have already explored.”
We may still see some new developments. Google is reportedly working on ‘Codename Passport’, a foldable device that is said to be launching this year alongside the Pixel 6 models, while Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Z Flip 3 is reportedly launching in August with a cheaper price tag.
“We’re definitely prototyping the technology. We’ve been doing it for a long time,” Mario Queiroz, Google’s former head of Pixel development, said in 2019, but added that he doesn’t “think there’s a clear use case yet.”