Pop culture trends are a funny thing. What is en vogue today may not be in a year. Conversely, what was once popular and is no longer popular today may soon be popular again. Trends are a very cyclical thing. Look no further than vinyl records as evidence of this. Once the only way that we consumed music at home, vinyl was largely cast aside in favor of more compact forms of media throughout the better part of the last few decades or so. But now it has re-emerged. Not as the main listening tool that CD’s once were, but as a niche product for enjoying music as it was meant to be heard. Vinyl records are now trendy, the tool of the audiophile.
This fascinating evolution of the importance of vinyl has made me think about another old but kind of new bit of technology gaining steam in the public consciousness: foldable phones. Ever since the rumors were abound of Samsung working on a device with a folding display, the tech community was excited. And why wouldn’t they be? After all, we have been told that the phone has gotten boring. Every phone looks like the other. This must be the next frontier. But here’s the thing, if this is the future it sure feels like the past.
It would appear that the folding phone has three types of interpretations at this point. Small phone into tablet (Galaxy Fold), small wallet like device into standard phone (Moto Razr), and hybrid small laptop-like device with two dedicated screens (LG G8X and Microsoft Surface Duo). All of these devices tap into an emotional nostalgia that the phone buying public misses: opening and closing a phone mechanically. Let me paint you the picture that these manufacturers are trying to sell with these devices. You are on a phone call or browsing through Twitter. You get annoyed by what you see, so you want to aggressively be done with your device. Here is a device that you can close with gusto. Something a rectangular slab can never do. Imagine opening a phone vertically to answer it as opposed to having to swipe or slide to answer. The appeal is not only nostalgic but also natural. It just feels right.
This is the dream that Samsung, Microsoft, Motorola, and LG are hoping that people will buy into. A feeling of emotion about your phone that can no longer be satisfied by the phones that we currently use. Think about what device was your favorite you’ve ever used. Really think about, the one device that crossed the line of just being a tool into being a device that you loved. It could be your first iPhone or smartphone. But a lot of people will mention something like the T-Mobile Sidekick or the Motorola Razr. These devices were iconic and probably the companion of many a fun-filled night some 15+ years ago. This is what folding phones tap into.
This is the proposition, smartphone features and advancements are great. However, the hardware has gotten very assembly line. Very predictable, with the only differentiation being how large the screen is or how many cameras can Apple or Samsung shove into a device without making it look like some sort of cyborg from the future. What if there was another way? A way to have the satisfying hardware of old with the apps that we must have in today’s age? Well, this is the year for this dream to become a reality. All of the aforementioned companies will gladly sell you a piece of this fantastic future…at a price. With the exception of the LG G8X (which takes a hybrid case approach as opposed to true foldable) the cost of entry for these devices starts at $1500. This is the price that these companies have placed on our collective tech nostalgia.
Here’s the rub though. A lot of the features that we have grown to enjoy with modern smartphones are largely missing from these new devices. The reason? Current technology has not yet caught up with our imaginations. Consider the Samsung Galaxy Fold for a moment. The device retails for just a shade under $2000. A device that is amazing to look at, but has no sort of durability rating against dust or water damage. A plastic screen because we can’t yet bend glass that is prone to damage from pocket debris. As a matter of fact, many people in their reviews stated that buying this device as your primary device right now is flat out a bad idea. Which from an average consumer point of view, makes no sense whatsoever. For much less, one could purchase a fully specced iPhone 11 Pro Max or Samsung Galaxy Note 10+. There are so many sacrifices to be made to be on the bleeding edge of technology it would seem.
In the case of the Moto Razr, Motorola (or Lenovo as it were) is leveraging a brand that is iconic to stir up nostalgia. The new device even looks like the Razr V3 back in 2004. To take it even a step further, Moto has included a retro software mode to the device to make it look like the Razr did in the pre-smartphone age. Sounds amazing doesn’t it? For $1500, Motorola is getting away with having a mediocre camera and a mid-range processor that would normally be found on a Xiaomi or Oppo phone in China that retails for $300. But you can open the phone vertically, and instantly be reminded of the MySpace era mirror selfies that the original Razr excelled at. The selling point here is making people in their 30’s feel like they are teenagers again. And it is working.
Many things have a price on them, nostalgia it can be argued is not one of those things. We as human beings associate items from our past as memories of a simpler and better time in our lives. So these devices by having such a simple open and closing motion that is refreshingly familiar to us. This is why Samsung has sold a surprising number of Galaxy Folds and why Motorola couldn’t keep up pre-order demand for the new Razr. One can even stretch it and say that the LG G8X and Surface Duo (more so the Surface than the LG) are reincarnations of the Nokia Communicator devices from the early 2000’s. At the core, companies are aware of the premium we place on those experiences from our past and as such are charging the consumer accordingly.
Objectively speaking, the folding phone is very much a gen 1 product. An alpha stage development. It’s final form is not really known as of now. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this is really the future that we want. The amount of compromises that we have to make to get this subliminal satisfaction is at this stage of process is just not worth it. This brings about the question of what is the final endgame of this product? What use case does this new form factor solve when all of the kinks are figured out?
I think that the answer to this is that having a folding tablet display could potentially have some use cases in the future. In using maps and GPS navigation software for instance. Having a digital unfolding map would be useful on a road trip. Additionally, having a folding coffee table tablet would be beneficial for showing off those vacation photos to house guests. However, the use case for the folding phone outside of purse convenience really seems quite unnecessary.
The real issue here is that many phone OEM’s are trying to force feed the public innovation. Over the years, we have seen rapid growth in the smartphone market in terms of market share and feature additions. Folding displays seem to be the next frontier, as everything else in the mind of manufacturers has seemingly been done. First it was to make displays as large as possible, then add as many camera megapixels as possible, then the war on bezels. So the culmination of this is that customers will get a smaller form factor that yields the largest possible display possible.
This brings me to LG’s iteration of the foldable device. To me, this one makes the most sense since it is packaged as an accessory as opposed to the entire form factor of the device. In the G8X we have a device that can be a normal sized smartphone in one instance and a fully functional foldable when attached to the Dual Screen case. This solution keeps the advantages of modern smartphones (larger battery, glass display, water and dust resistance) and also the advantages of having a larger display for excellent multitasking. If nothing else, this should be the accepted form factor until the limitations of the folding displays can be solved.
The mainstream tech media outlets have convinced us that these folding devices are the future. The future is foldable, they say. The limits of the smartphone rectangle have been reached by all accounts. As a result, we must endure these moments of beta testing. The reaction I have to that notion is that the real movement forward is on the software and AI front. On the camera algorithm front. The issue with this development however, is that AI and software integration doesn’t sell phones. Folding displays with awe inspiring hinges do. The flip phone is back, Not as a meaningful technological improvement, but rather as a tool to keep enthusiasts interested in phone hardware. It is only a matter of time before this trend either goes the way of vinyl records or cassette tapes. Time will tell.