While we wait for the Mobile World Conference for 2019 to start tonight (25th February 2019), the expected release of flexible-screened folding mobile phones dominates industry speculation.
Will folding mobile phones be the interesting but doomed technology to follow in the footsteps of 3D TVs?
Leading manufacturers Samsung, Motorola and LG are releasing, or are expected to announce phones that can fold out to reveal an expanded screen area, with seamless joins that will give a tablet-like experience to the user. Chinese manufacturers Xiaomi and Huawei have said they will release a folding phone.
With the phone folded out, the user will have access to a single conjoined screen, doubling the screen area. It’s easy to imagine, just place two identical mobiles side-by-side. Now stack them together. That’s how thick a folding phone will be, and how heavy and bulky it will feel.
We have questions...
The novelty factor with these phones is strong, but purchasers need to consider how they intend to use the phones.
- Would you still enjoy carrying a phone if it were twice as thick, and twice as heavy?
- When folded out for use like a tablet, can it be operated with one or two hands?
- Will you be replacing a tablet with this phone?
- Will there be enough battery in a phone to support a device with two or three displays?
- Will a phone with multiple display screens, hinges and a polymer screen be tough enough to meet our expectations of a smart phone, and can you put a case on it?
- How much will a phone with multiple screens and batteries weigh?
- How much will a folding phone with three displays and a polymer screen cost?
The temptation of the bleeding edge
As a tech early-adopter, the idea of a folding phone is tremendously exciting. If I sat myself down with a regular smartphone next to someone operating a folding phone, I’d be envious of someone having access to such an amazing technology while I sat there with the “boring” amazing technology of a modern smartphone.
My concern is that the folding mobile will be a flop like the 3D Television.
Sony Australia’s Paul Colley told us in 2010 that “a large percentage of Australian viewers would have 3D televisions by 2014”, but instead their sales were poor and manufacture ended by 2017.
Practicalities killed off the 3D TV, and quite a lot of timing issues.
Apple as a weathervane
Apple’s silence on the folding mobile phone format has been an indication of caution and concern on the viability of folding phones.
While Apple are a benchmark for the industry, they’re also a conservative manufacturer, having previously dismissed big screens and styluses, only to reverse their decisions and release their own version.
Apple has filed patents on a folding phone, and are likely waiting to see how the folding phone performs on the market before taking a risk on this new phone format.
Like a folding mobile, the thought of a TV able to give us the same 3D experience we get at the movie cinemas was a very tempting proposition. It’s a fascinating technology that can enhance our consumption experience, but it’s not really necessary, and other examples already exist in a more refined package; folding phones are attempting to displace small tablets, as 3D TV was attempting to displace regular 2D TV and 3D movies.
Weighing up the pros and cons of folding phones?
Talk of a flexible screen has been buzzing for a few years now. If there’s a timing issue, it will be on improving battery and miniaturisation technology in order to avoid the extra bulk and battery drain you’d expect of a premium phone that can keep three screens running all day, and still fit into your pocket.
I’m in the market for a new phone in the next few months, and I’ll be weighing up the merits of a flexible folding phone vs a single-screened smartphone like I’ve been happy with since 2011.
When I consider the cost, weight, bulk and battery drain will be double or more of what I’d pay for a regular smartphone, the adult in has concerns about living with a folding phone.
My concerns may be unfounded, and folding phones may sell despite these assumed shortcomings. I was wrong about the iPad, which didn’t seem to have a clear purpose when it released.
I hope they do succeed, because in future generations I can imagine that they become truly flexible, light and as good as making a call as they are at browsing online content. A phone that doubles as a tablet would be an amazing piece of technology to carry around in your pocket.
We will know better what the future brings for the folding mobile phone when Mobile World Conference 2019 (MWC2019) gets underway tonight in Barcelona, Spain.
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