There was no doubt as to the “best in show” at the 2019 edition of Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain last week. The award was given to the most significant product introduced during the week of the MWC conference. The host organizer, GSMA, bestowed the honors to Huawei for their Mate X foldable 5G smartphone; an out-folding smartphone that unfurls into a contiguous eight-inch tablet. Foldable phones represent the first significant change in mobile form factor in nearly a decade. Not since the capacitive multi-touch technology which allowed devices makers to simplify all user interactions onto a single piece of glass has there been a more ground-breaking mobile design. Just one week prior to MWC, Samsung had just announced their Galaxy Fold device. It was no secret in the industry that both Huawei and Samsung were locked in a race to be the first to release a new foldable form factor. The technology which has been under development for many years have finally matured enough to be productized.
To the lay observer, the new form factor appears overly complex with moving parts and flexing displays that may ultimately be prone to damage or failure. Also, the value proposition of these early devices (which starts at around $2000) is questionable and obviously targeted at the ultra-premium or luxury segment of the market. So, what exactly does foldables offer that makes the design so compelling? For that answer, we’ll need to look back at the evolutionary design of the smartphone from the very beginning to the present:
Smartphone designs have evolved over the past decade to adapt to the changing user behavior in mobile applications. When first developed, it was primarily a voice communication tool with enough processing power to perform basic digital tasks like email and web surfing. As 3G gave way to 4G, consumers began to talk less but interact more digitally on their devices as faster networks bring near instant connection to work and life. Now, on the precipice of a digital transformation with the rollout of 5G networks, smartphone design has all but converged on a common design theme. Current designs of smartphones have essentially reached the ergonomic limits of the human hand and design evolutions have essentially stalled. To continue to grow the display to keep up with our insatiable need for consuming immersive digital content, device makers would require a new approach to the mobile form factor. What is required is a design that allows for hand hold portability, but large enough to display large amounts of information. The foldable form factor has been kicked around for years in the industry in the form of dual screens and different mechanical hinge styles, but none had staying power. Consumers wanted a mobile tablet but one that can be carried around like a phone. The critical piece of technology that would enable this new form factor was the advent of the flexible OLED display. Now, users can simply fold and unfold the display to use in 2 distinct modes.
Existing smartphone designs will run into a wall without innovations like foldable displays. The new form factor has energized the industry and captured people’s imagination as science fiction realized. Does this mean that everyone will be carrying foldable devices in the future? That is still debatable as use cases and user interactions haven’t been fully vetted. However, if we subscribe to the notion that consumer behavior will continue to evolve towards new forms of digital communication, there is a good chance that the foldable phone design will stick.
The industry still has a long way to go until the technology can be cost effective to adopt for the general public. However, given the stagnant growth of the mobile devices market, the foldable design could not have arrived at a better time to reinvigorate the sagging smartphone market.