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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Folding Phones Are the New 3D TV

In a live-streamed media event on Wednesday morning, Samsung revealed a pair of new high-end phones, two sleek smartwatches, and a set of jelly-bean-like earbuds. If you weren’t paying close attention to the announcement, that's OK; with everything else going on in the world right now, smartphone launch events might have moved to the bottom of your list of priorities.

They haven't slipped down Samsung's list, though. The electronics giant is the globe’s largest shipper of smartphones, and it still really, really wants you to pay attention to smartphone launch events. It wants to show that technology only moves in one direction. It wants you to consider how a new phone might fit into your life. Better yet, it wants you to consider how a folding phone might fit into your life, and it has bent the laws of mechanical engineering to make it fit into your pants.

Enter two new folding mobile phones. The Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3 were both revealed at yesterday’s virtual event. The former folds open like a book, and the latter folds over like an old flip phone (hence the name). But wait, what’s new about a phone that flips open, a Luddite might wonder, rightfully. To see the innovation in Samsung folding phones, one needs to look at the displays—bendy, carbon-reinforced polymer layers that unfurl when you want a big screen and snap shut when you don't. Your iPhone can’t do that.

Samsung’s newest foldables are even more impressive than the folding models that came before them. (The company first started shipping foldable phones in 2019, after years of development.) And yet, folding phones are still the 3D TVs of the smartphone world: birthed with the intention of swiveling your head toward a product at a time when the market for that product has softened. They’re technically complicated. They’re expensive. And their usability depends a whole lot on the way content is displayed on them, which means manufacturers could nail all the tech specs and still must wait on software makers (or entertainment companies) to create stuff to fill these space-age screens.

All this does not bode well for the future of foldable phones, though some analysts are more optimistic.

An Open and Shut Case

What Samsung has done with this new hardware is remarkable. The first Galaxy Fold was delayed due to a faulty display, and even after it was rereleased, it felt thick and emitted mildly arthritic sounds when you opened and closed it. The Galaxy Z Flip, released in early 2020, was the Fold’s fun, experimental younger sibling. It folded downwards like an old Motorola Razr (which was also rereleased as a foldable). It had a new scratch-resistant display. It was purple.

But both were ridiculously expensive—$1,980 and $1,380—and aside from the innovative displays, they didn’t have all the latest and greatest components. The next foldable, the Z Fold2, released in fall 2020, had a larger display and supported 5G, but it still got knocked for not offering Samsung’s best smartphone cameras.

The new Galaxy Z Fold 3, on the other hand, is possibly the most Samsung phone ever. It costs $1,799. Its display has a super high refresh rate. It's more water-resistant, and, Samsung claims, many percentage points more durable. It works with the S Pen stylus, made possible by a nifty two-panel digitizer that lives underneath the flexible screen. The Fold3's trio of rear cameras are complemented by an under-display camera. 

The companion Flip 3 updates Samsung's clamshell design, and it's still cute as hell. It too is supposedly more durable this time around, and the tiny display on the closed cover of the phone has been enlarged. The price has dropped too: The old Flip was $1,380, but the new model starts at $999.

Then there is the software. The whole promise of a phone that morphs into something like a tablet is that you can either have a large-screen viewing experience with just one app, or you can run a few apps side by side. Samsung did show off an updated version of its One UI, which includes new options for dragging and dropping between apps and app windowing. And supposedly, more than 50 popular apps have been updated to take advantage of these futuristic, foldy displays. For example, the so-called “Flex” mode offers some utility while the phones are folded halfway. But as WIRED’s Julian Chokkattu pointed out though, Samsung didn’t clearly state which apps are optimized for this feature. It only indicated it’s your “favorite apps,” assuming that’s enough.

Optical Illusions

Back in the early 2010’s, global TV shipments started slipping, as developed markets became saturated with flat-screen TVs. And as prices for LCD TVs sank, so did profits. So TV manufacturers like Sony, LG, and Samsung began hyping the next expensive upgrade: 3D televisions. We tech journalists marched around the annual CES in 3D glasses, hoping to catch a glimpse of a 3D TV that would change our minds about this gimmicky technology. We grew mildly nauseous. We waited for more content.

Five years later, 3D TV was dead. At the end of the last decade, WIRED’s Brian Barrett summed up the great 3D TV pitch as “what happens when smart people run out of ideas, the last gasp before aspiration gives way to commoditization.”

I know: TVs and mobile phones are different beasts. Mobile phones have fundamentally altered the way we live. Billions of handsets have been sold. But about four years ago, global smartphone sales slowed. By 2019, consumers were holding on to their phones for a few extra months before splurging on an upgrade. As smartphones became more secure and reliable, running on desktop-grade chip systems and featuring cameras good enough to decimate the digital camera market, each new iteration of a phone seemed, well, iterative.

Enter foldable displays, which are either a desperate gimmick or a genuine leap forward, depending on whom you ask. Or, like 3D TVs, maybe they're both.

Jitesh Ubrani, research manager for IDC’s mobile device division, doesn’t wholly agree with this comparison. True, he concedes, Samsung’s projections of major growth for the category of foldable phones hinge on the fact that not many have been sold to date. Foldables are still a tiny fraction of the overall smartphone market. But like Samsung, IDC is bullish on fold-up screens. The research firm estimates that as many as 7 million foldable phones could ship in 2021, up from 1.9 million in 2020.

Ubrani points out that the software being built for folding devices has improved, and that Google in particular has been working with OEMs to ensure there are versions of its software that run well on foldables. But Ubrani’s biggest argument for foldables not being 3D TVs is the potential utility of foldables, even if that potential has not yet been demonstrated. “Most people in the industry, and even many consumers, believe that ultimately there is just going to be one device you use, you know?” Ubrani says. “And this device will have the ability to function as a phone, as a PC, as a tablet. So where foldables can really drive the technology is by replacing three devices with one.” They’re not there yet, he says; in terms of software and durability, we're years away from seeing foldables take over. But they’re getting there.

Foldables were also supposed to be the ultimate on-the-go device, for road warriors and jet-setters and productivity gurus who want to “stay in the flow” at all times. As I’ve written before, it’s not exactly the best time to beta test this concept, while some of our movements are limited. The context for foldables has changed in the short time since they became commercially available.

Of course, that context could always change again. Foldables may be the next frontier in phones, or in tablets, or laptops, or all of the above. They could become commonplace, assumed, as boring as a solid inflexible brick. Maybe we’ll manage our decentralized bank accounts on a creaky screen as we shoot into sub-orbital space. Or maybe we’ll stare into the screens, two parts fused into one, and hope that the future is something more than this.

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