Why foldable phones are not the next big thing

When I started using the new Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4 —my first foldable device—, I was convinced that folding phones were going to be the next big thing. I thought that over the next few years most people would end up with a foldable smartphone. Now, a bit over a month into using one myself, I’m not so sure anymore.

But before I explain why, let’s recap what types of foldable phones are available. There are three types. First, regular sized phones that fold in half, taking less space than normal in your pocket. There are also big phones that unfold into a tablet, allowing you to carry two devices in one (this is the Fold4’s category). And finally, there are experimental phones that awkwardly unfold in ways that are not that practical or refined at the moment (e.g. screens that fold in three sections, or that expand mechanically).

At the end of the day, all foldable devices try to achieve the same goal: carry more in less space. The Fold4 achieves that goal in a polished form factor. After four years improving the formula, Samsung has delivered a fun and practical device that doesn’t suffer from many of the shortcomings that its first iteration had.

The Fold4 cannot substitute my iPad Pro entirely, but it has become the perfect consumption device —funnily, what the iPad was 10 years ago, before multitasking, keyboard and mouse support was introduced. I cannot comfortably write this post on a Fold4, for example, but I can use it to do things where I used to prefer a tablet experience: research and book a vacation with multiple apps open side by side, enjoy a movie during a flight, etc.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem with foldable devices; they all have a weakness that current manufacturing materials cannot overcome: the screen that folds is made of a sturdy plastic that provides a convincing tactile experience (i.e. simulates the feel of touching glass) but still gets scratched like regular plastic. 

After a month living with my Fold4, I noticed a few microabrasions on the inner screen. I’ve treated that screen with the utmost care, and yet, it seems that while removing dust, I made a few scratch marks. Imperceptible at first sight, but nonetheless visible in contrasting light.

Since glass cannot bend without breaking, the use of a plastic-like material is unavoidable. The Fold4 has, on top of that material, a regular screen protector. That leaves a perceptible crease when unfolded, but in my experience it was not more distracting than the iPhone’s notch was. No, the real problem is how easy it is to leave permanent marks on the screen protector. I believe that the average consumer won’t want to fiddle with these issues.

The size of folding phones doesn’t help either. The Fold4 is a thick brick, and even though I got used to it pretty quick, there is a significant group of customers who want smaller form factors, not bigger. This will also prevent, or at least will slow down, folding phones from expanding rapidly.

This realization made me think of what many have been saying for a while now: the smartphone has peaked and plateaued. All the big players resort now to incremental improvements year after year. Technical specs don’t really matter anymore because they are marginally better than in the phone you already have. We made it!

Software is the main source of innovation these days, code is the biggest differentiator between last year’s phone and this year’s. And even then, we are talking about little spots of color in a bland and boring painting. That was in fact what made me gravitate to the Fold4, I was just bored of the iPhones and Pixels out there.

Samsung’s Unpacked event last August made me yearn for a foldable device and online reviews indicated that most of the problems from the previous versions were resolved (e.g. hinge durability problems, outer screen size, inner screen camera). Well, all that turned out to be true, but the inner screen’s durability was something unexpected. I thought my regular level of care when it comes to phones would be good enough, and I was wrong.

Are foldable phones irredimible then? Nothing is black or white, and I still think there is a market for these devices. Power users like me, for example. People who thought that products like the Surface Duo were exciting but didn’t deliver on the promise of two devices in one (a flagship phone, and a small tablet when unfolded). The Fold4 is that exciting product, even though its thick body and brittle inner screen are its Achilles’ heel. I believe that the only way in which foldable devices will reach mass adoption is by providing similar durability to a regular phone, and a thinner profile without compromises. 

Perhaps, folding phones will never be more than what they are today. Or perhaps, some manufacturer in the future will invent a new material that is as scratch resistant as glass and as flexible as plastic, and will package it all in a sleek and thin form factor. Until then, foldable phones like the Fold4 are probably not for the faint of heart.


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Photo by Onur Binay on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Why foldable phones are not the next big thing

  1. Ivan: Very good analysis and …….I agree with you; Marketing product, a lot of advertising just to create a desire for a cell phone that bends, but that does not provide anything really relevant.

    Like

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