Last updated on September 13th, 2021 at 11:00 pm
With folding phones entering their third generation, technology has come a long way in just a few short years. Yet, despite the promise and advancements of these devices, they still only represent a small portion of the total mobile market.
Taking a look back at what this technology accomplishes, we want to explore what sets them apart, and why their road to popular acceptance hasn’t been as rapid as many anticipated. It’s a curious journey, and one with interesting implications for the future of how we manage mobile digital systems.
What Sets Folding Phones Apart?
The obvious answer to this question is the ability of the devices to double their usable screen size. As for the effect of this feature, that depends on the user. Consider a typical mobile use case in playing online casino games as an example.
On these websites, players have access to an enormous range of experiences like slots, table games, and live titles. Though playing these games on a larger screen might not fundamentally alter the casino’s core offerings, it does allow a more visually engaging way to play. Depending on the player, this could make a huge difference.
For traditional video games, the extra screen size from folding phones could manifest as an appreciable gameplay advantage, in certain situations.
This could occur due to the inbuild challenges that traditional devices have with the small screens of mobile devices. A few pixels on a small screen can be difficult to see, but if the screen is larger, even if the number of pixels doesn’t change, then spotting far-off details and enemies becomes that much easier. In a game like PUBG, this could mean the difference between failure and a chicken dinner.
Caption: Gaming on folding phones can be much more visually engaging
Outside of browsing and games, users also might want to use their mobile for images, watching videos, and work duties. While these are, again, perfectly doable on traditional phones, having larger screen real estate can make the experience more engaging. In the case of work applications, more room and improved multitasking support can even lead to substantial advantages in convenience and efficiency. For some, this disparity could allow folding phones to cross the threshold into viable work machines.
The folding technology itself is simple to understand, coming through the invention of what Samsung dubs Ultra-Thin Glass or UTG. This replaces the rigid screens of traditional phones with a material much more flexible, to the point it can be folded on itself without breaking. When first announced, industry spectators were hesitant to believe the claims of longevity, as is appropriate with any unproven technology.
This lack of faith would then be supported by tests on pre-release versions of the systems, where companies like CNet put the demos through their paces. In this instance, errors started occurring around the 120,000 folds mark, some 80,000 fewer than what Samsung suggested the system was capable of.
Fortunately for both Samsung and early adopters, the reliability of these pre-releases would be addressed before the official release. Today, Samsung boasts its screens can easily last up to 200,000 folds, and most user reports seem to support this claim. Though there are instances of failure, these do not appear to be outside of the statistical bounds of regular mobile hardware failure rates.
With so many advantages, the success of folding systems might have appeared assured, but sales didn’t reflect this scenario. Instead, folding devices like the Galaxy Z Flip and Fold series have become somewhat niche, though their sales still indicate an upward trajectory. As for why this might be, answers are likely found primarily in traditional mobile momentum.
As ubiquitous as mobiles are today, they’ve endured decades of gradual evolution to reach their current levels of success. Starting from enormous devices that could be mistaken for bricks, mobiles became smaller and smaller, until finally reaching the age of the smartphone.
What followed was a gradual level of growth, to the point now where a current-gen mobile can be a struggle to fit in the average pocket. Asking users to abandon decades of fairly linear progress to jump to something new and still relatively untested was a big ask, so it’s only natural that folding phone adoption would be slow. Then, on top of this, is the cost.
Price Versus Use
At this point, there aren’t a lot of names in the folding phone game. While traditional mobiles cover the entire budget-premium spectrum, folding devices tend towards the premium space. This serves as a significant barrier to entry for many, though it’s a decision well-considered.
At this early point in the folding device lifespan, budget devices combined with the new technology could lead to higher failure rates. This could damage the reputation of all folding devices, hurting maximum adoption potential. Of course, this is a double-edged sword that can hold adoption back, but manufacturers have run the cost/benefit equation, and have all come to the same conclusion.
This also brings back the question of screen longevity. While lab tests have shown the early issues have largely been ironed out, there’s a big difference between use in a lab and use in real life.
Sure, folding is going to be the same, but what about the introduction of grime, grease, sweat, water, particulate matter, hair, and anything else we experience in daily life? Users will eventually formulate scenarios that developers didn’t anticipate, with outcomes that are impossible to predict. In these cases, many potential buyers have thought it best that other users perform the tests that developers couldn’t.
Caption: Folding phones aren’t cheap, but that’s expected with a premium product according to reports from Samsung in late August, preorder volume for the new generation of folding devices easily outpaced the total sales of Galaxy Z mobiles sold in 2021. This would be following other sales statistics that paint folding devices are growing more popular with each passing year.
The only question is when these devices could plateau, and how much of a chunk of the traditional market they could take with them. Like many mobile technologies, this could just be a case of the market waiting for Apple to reiterating existing systems, making them more visible in the mainstream. Until then, there’s no telling how far folding phones could go, and how standardized their adoption will become.