Every decade or so, a new technology or device format is unveiled that immediately disrupts the market. Apple was the instigator in 2007, and the iPhone upended the mobile phone industry. More than a decade later, the smartphone market is now showing signs of stagnation. The latest designs from various companies are starting to look more alike, which is making brand differentiation difficult.
The physical design of the smartphone has evolved over time, but it fundamentally remains a flat rectangular slab of glass and metal that can fit in one hand or in a pants pocket. The average display size has grown over the years, from less than four inches on the diagonal a decade ago, to more than 5.5 inches now. Bezels began to shrink or disappear altogether last year, as several manufacturers released all-display designs. Likewise, screen aspect ratios elongated, from the standard 16:9 to 18:9 or greater, to maximize both display size and hand-held ergonomics. These changes have made smartphones better products, which is important, since they are arguably the most indispensable devices in our lives. However, as designs converge on a similar theme, subsequent design innovations also begin to stagnate, as the physical design reaches its limit.
New full-screen displays announced by Samsung. Source: Samsung
At Samsung’s software developer conference on November 7, 2018, Samsung gave the industry a sneak peek at the upcoming smartphone form factor it believes will be the next leap in smartphone design evolution. Under shroud of darkness and cleverly placed lighting, Justin Denison unveiled the Samsung foldable concept. This design is the culmination of years of work in flexible displays, materials and lamination techniques, which have come together into one contiguous display that can be folded without unsightly hinges or seams.
The foldable design represents the logical next step in smartphone product category evolution. As users demand even more immersive experiences from their smartphones, the only other way to grow the smartphone display size is to use a flexible design that can be folded or rolled for portability.
The flexible design demonstrated at Samsung’s developer conference was an “in-fold” design. In-folds differ from out-fold designs in the size of the radius of curvature created by the fold. In-folds are most challenging, due to the tighter screen fold, but out-fold designs are ultimately more fragile, as the entire display is exposed on the exterior.
Samsung’s decision to introduce this new form factor at a developer’s conference was a wise one, since they can lean on the larger developer community to build their applications and create new experiences for the foldable phone. However, that move also highlights the harsh reality that this design may be a solution looking for a problem. A “killer application” is required for consumers to jump to this new format, otherwise the market will stick with the traditional design.
Google joined Samsung during the reveal, announcing that the Android operating system will support foldable form factors. This industry support is vital to creating a foundation for seamless user experiences for phones and tablets. Currently, the most obvious benefit of foldable designs is to use the larger folded display to project visual content on a larger canvas. However, given Android’s limitations with tablet user experience (UX) designs, it will be unwise to just apply current user-interface (UI) design themes to a larger display form. Google has had challenges with its tablet designs, even going as far as to switch up the operating system to Chrome OS on the Pixel Slate, for better tablet usability.
The problem that the foldable phone solves is to remove ambiguity of single or dual-handed use in smartphones. To do that, the Samsung foldable design essentially offers a form factor to address either use so that the user can consciously switch from one to another. When folded, users have a traditional single-handed phone operation. When unfolded, the device transforms to present an immersive tablet experience. How useful or important is this feature will have a lot to do with the ultimate product experience and selling price. We should not assume that the price elasticity of smartphones can be stretched into price ranges that overlap with tablets, mobile PCs and other products. The foldable phone design must stand on its own merits and provide value that would justify its device cost.
Samsung must not only get the hardware right, but also ensure a superior user experience. The move to lean on the developer community will help Samsung experiment and test out new uses for foldable phones. If all goes according to plan, the foldable phone just might be able to disrupt the smartphone industry and jump start another decade of growth.