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Are folding smartphones practical?

Posted in computers, ipad, mobile devices by commorancy on April 30, 2019

Today, let’s explore folding smartphones. Are they practical? Do they have a place in the market? Will they last? Are they innovative? Let’s explore.

Tablets vs. Folding Smartphone

Looking at the Huawei Mate X and the Samsung Galaxy Fold folding devices, two things become abundantly clear, First, they fold open into the form factor of a tablet. Second, they command a price that’s way, way higher than an actual tablet.

There are also additional problems with these phones. When the phone is folded open, you can’t hold it to your ear and use it as you would a phone. You must fold it closed to regain the phone form factor. Because the larger screen is the primary reason to buy this device, this makes the folding aspect of this device less about being a phone and more about being a tablet. Or, let me put that another way, it’s a gimmick. Why is it a gimmick? Because in addition to the tablet size, you also add creases and marks to the plastic surface each time you fold and unfold the phone. Ultimately, it becomes less about being a tablet and more about the novelty of the folding screen.

For a product that’s supposed to be a premium, top-tier device, I don’t know about you, but I want my surface to be (and remain) pristine. I don’t want to feel surface bumps or lines running down the center of the fold area. I certainly don’t want this stretching and bending plastic to get worse over time. Yet, that’s where these phones clash with…

Materials Science

In other words, this is where these phones meet reality (or physics). To fold any type of material, that material will become marred and marked by the folding action. As the folding continues, the problems will increase with the surface becoming more and more marred. It’s simply the nature of folding something. It’s a limitation of the way physical objects operate when folded. It’s nature.

When applied to a phone’s case design, you will continue to see see the fold area gain marks, bumps and imperfections due to the folding action. To me, this doesn’t say “premium”. It says “cheap”. Plastics see to that “cheapness”. After all, plastics are some of the cheapest materials around today… and plastics are the only substances capable of holding up to any level of folding with a minimum of problems. However, a minimum of problems doesn’t mean zero problems.

The only way this could change is if materials could be made out of a polymer that can heal itself under these folding stresses and stretch and relax appropriately during the fold. To date, no one has been able to produce such a material. This means that folding screen surfaces will inevitably become marked and marred with each fold and unfold action. Over time, it will eventually become a sheer mess of marks… which also assumes the folding action of the OLED screen itself will survive that many folds. Just consider how a paperback book’s spine looks after you’re done reading it. That same effect happens to plastic, even the most resilient of plastics.

OLED Screens and Electronics

I’m not a materials scientist. With that said, I’m also unaware of any specific clear plastic sheet materials that can survive being folded and unfolded many times. Silicone might work, but even then silicone might degrade or break over time. Considering how many times people might utilize a folding screen per day, it could be folded and unfolded perhaps hundreds of times in a single day. If you unfolded the screen just once per day, in 1 year you’d have unfolded the screen 365 times. If you multiply that times 100, that’s likely over 36,500 folds per year… probably more.

While notebook manufacturers have more or less worked out the folding problem with LCD screens (they use flexible ribbon cables), notebooks hinges and components do eventually wear out from regular opening and closing.

In a phone, the problem will be ten times greater. Not only will the phone wear out faster than a non-folding model, the phone will be worth far, far less at the end of your use. No one is going to want to buy a used folding phone that looks like a used paper back book.

Since the hinges on these devices have to be uniquely designed for a smaller phone form factor and to avoid getting in the way of the screen surface, these designs are likely ripe for defects… particularly the first generation phones. And all for what?

A Tablet?

The single unique benefit of the folding phone is to turn the screen into the size of a tablet. While single body phablets worked great when they arrived, this idea of making the screen even bigger in a phone doesn’t make much sense. Yes, it’s unique. Yes, it’s probably a way to make more sales. But, is it really a good idea? Not really.

Tablets already do what they need to do and they do it well. Arguably, the best tablet I’ve seen created by Samsung is the Galaxy Tab S. It had the perfect form factor for watching movies. It fit in the hand nicely. It had a perfect weight. It also had that amazing OLED screen. It had everything you could want in a tablet.

Now, with folding screens comes a whole new paradigm of software to drive the folding action. When unfolded, it’s basically a tablet. When folded, it becomes a phone form factor. To move between the small folded screen and the larger unfolded screen seamlessly between apps, app support must be built. This requires whole new set of OS libraries and software to support that action.

Unfortunately, neither Android nor IOS supports this folding screen usability. Instead, Samsung has cobbled together some early drivers and software for its Galaxy Fold. With the Huawei’s Mate X, it’s not even that far along. If you buy into one of these convertibles, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when moving between the small and large screens within the same app. Some apps might update properly, many more will not.

That doesn’t mean the OSes won’t catch up, but it will take some time. It also means growing pains until the OS technology catches up.

Phone and Tablet Together

Tablets and phones should be married. I’ve said that for quite some time. There’s no reason to carry around two devices when you can carry around one. However, it doesn’t need to fold. Carrying around a tablet as both a tablet and a phone is perfectly fine. Simply marry the innards of a phone into a Tablet and voila, a new device. I’d be perfectly fine carrying around a tablet the size of the iPad Mini as my primary phone. It’s small enough to be portable and large enough to do what I need to do on a tablet. There’s no need to fold it in half.

Gimmicks

Unfortunately, technology has moved away from producing useful new features and has moved firmly into adding gimmicks to sell new devices. From FaceID to the ever growing number of unnecessary cameras to now this folding action. For cameras, one camera is fine. Two borders on a gimmick. Adding three or more cameras is most definitely a gimmick to part you from your money. You don’t need multiple cameras on a phone. One is enough.

Folding is also a gimmick. The idea of folding isn’t new. We’ve had folding books, folding paper and folding binders… heck, there are even “folders” so named to hold paper in filing cabinets.

Folding a phone? Not necessary. Gimmick? Definitely. It’s particularly a gimmick because of the problem with materials science. If you know your phone is going to end up looking like trash at the end of one year’s use, then why bother? I know phones are designed to last one year before buying another, but that purchase cycle is insane. I’ve never fallen into that manufacturing and purchasing trap. I expect my phones to last at least 3 years, sometimes before even needing a battery change.

I’ve always held onto my phone for at least 1-2 new phone release cycles before buying a new one. Lately, it’s been 2-3 cycles because I’m currently invested in the Apple universe and I vehemently dislike the iPhone X’s design. I have an iPhone 7 Plus. I abhor the notched screen. I dislike that Apple invested in a costly OLED screen not only include that notch, but also reduce the color rendition to mimic an LCD screen. If you’re planning on degrading an OLED screen’s rendition, then use the cheaper LCD screen technology. An OLED screen offers a very intense saturated look. Some people don’t like it, but many do. The point to offering a screen capable of that level of color saturation is to make use of it, not hide it.

With the iPhone X, I dislike that there’s no TouchID button. I also dislike that the screen isn’t flush to the full edge of the case. There’s still a small black bezel around the entire screen except near that ugly, ugly notch. I also don’t like the introduction of the rounded display corners. It worked on the Mac back in the day, but not on a phone. Keep the corners firmly square.

Worse, at the time the iPhone X arrived, my iPhone 7 Plus’s screen was still larger than the iPhone X. It wasn’t until the iPhone X Max arrived that we got a comparable screen size to the 7 Plus. I digress.

Gimmicks are now firmly driving the phone industry rather than outstanding design and usability features. The last outstanding iPhone design that Apple produced was arguably the iPhone 7. It solved all of the glass design problems around the iPhone 4, the small screen of the iPhone 5 and the bendgate problems of the iPhone 6. It is arguably, indeed, the best phone Apple has yet designed. Then, they introduced the abomination known as the iPhone X.

At the same time as the iPhone X, Apple introduced the iPhone 8. The iPhone 8 seems much like an extension of the iPhone 7, but with wireless charging. Yes, wireless charging would have been great IF Apple hadn’t cancelled the AirPower charger base they had promised. Now that that product is non-existent, the point to wireless charging an iPhone has more or less evaporated. Sure, you can wireless charge an iPhone with a Qi charger, but at such a slow rate it’s not worth considering.

The AirPower’s whole reason to exist was to charged the phone (and other devices) supposedly faster than a Lightning cable. Perhaps Apple will finally release their fast charging specs to the industry so that Qi chargers can finally build in this faster charging feature and offer similar charging times as the aforementioned, but now defunct AirPower base. But, we know Apple, they’ve just shot themselves in the foot and they won’t do anything about it. Now that the AirPower is dead, so likely too is the hope of super fast wireless charging.

AirPods 2

This whole situation with the AirPower (and really this is more about Apple’s failure to deliver a workable product) is made far, far worse with the release of the the AirPods 2. It’s like Apple has some big sadistic streak towards its customers by cancelling a completely necessary product in one breath, then announce the AirPods 2 “with wireless charging case” in the next.

One of the primary reasons the AirPods 2 exist is for the wireless charging case. Unfortunately, even with Lightning, the charging speed of the AirPods is still incredibly slow. Considering how much slower Qi chargers operate, it will take infinitely more time to charge the case of the AirPods 2. You don’t want this if you’re trying to get out the door to your destination. This means that those who had banked on the wireless charging capability for purchase of the AirPods 2 with the wireless charging (a case that costs $80 separately or adds $40 to the price of standard AirPods) because of the AirPower’s faster performance has now been misled by Apple. Thus, this makes the primary selling point of the AirPods 2 now worthless.

If anything, the cancellation of the AirPower wireless charging pad clearly shows Apple’s failure as a company. Not only did the engineers fail to design and deliver a seemingly simplistic device, Apple as a company failed the consumer by not carrying through with their ecosystem continuity plans. Plans that, if they had come to fruition, could have seen to the existence of a much wider array of wireless devices aided by the AirPower.

The AirPods are pretty much a case of “you-can’t-have-one-without-the-other”. Failing the delivery of the AirPower means you’ve failed the delivery of the AirPods 2 by extension. It’s this double whammy failure that will hit Apple hard.

In fact, it’s even worse than a double-whammy for the future of Apple. It impacts future iPhone sales, future iPad sales, future Apple Watch sales and, in general, any other wireless charging device Apple might have had in its design queue. The failure to deliver the AirPower base is a major blow to Apple’s innovation and the Apple ecosystem as a whole.

Apple’s Apathy

The management team at Apple appears to be apathetic to this wider problem. I can hear them now, “Let’s just cancel AirPower”. Another person says, “But, it’s going to be needed for many future devices”. Another person says, “Don’t worry about that. Just cancel it.”

Apathy is the antithesis of Innovation. These two concepts have no symbiotic relationship. There was a time when Apple (or more specifically, Steve Jobs) would push his teams to deliver amazing designed products with features 5-10 years ahead of their time. Now Apple can’t even deliver a similar product that already exists in the marketplace by other manufacturers.

You can’t run a business on apathy. You can only run a business on doing. If Apple is smart, they’ll announce the cancellation of AirPower, but quickly announce an even better wireless charging alternative that’s even faster than the AirPower. Without a solid, reliable and performant wireless charging system, devices like the now-wireless charging AirPods 2 are left hanging. The Apple Watch is left hanging. And… Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone X is also being left hanging without a net.

Innovation and Gimmicks

While I know I got off on an Apple tangent, it was to prove a point. That point being that gimmicks like wireless charging cases, must have functional sister products to bring that product to life. Without such symbiotic sister products, a half-product is very much simply an on-paper gimmick to sell more product.

Clearly, Apple is now firmly in gimmick territory in its attempts to make money. So is Samsung, Huawei and even LG. It’s more about innovating and making truly new and exciting products we’ve never seen, than it is about adding more cameras, or bigger batteries or making it thinner or adding a pencil or even, yes, folding. These featires are the “accessories” that add value to an innovative product, but these are not primary driving factors.

If you want to wow the industry, you make a product no one has ever seen before. We’ve seen both the Huawei Mate X and the Galaxy Fold before, in tablets and in phones. Marrying the two together doesn’t make innovation, it makes iteration. There’s a substantial difference between iteration and innovation. Iteration is taking two existing concepts and marrying them together. Innovation is producing a product that has never before existed like that ever. Tablets already exist even if they don’t fold.

The iPad as Innovation

The iPad is a game changing, innovative device. The only even close product would have been in the early 90’s with Grid’s GRiDPad. The only similarity between the iPad and the GRiDPad is the fact that they were both tablets by function. Both have completely different philosophies on what a tablet is, how it works and how it looks. The GRiDPad failed because it didn’t know what to be at a time when it needed a clear reason to exist. This is particularly true when such a form factor had never before existed. People need to be able to wrap their head around why a tablet needs to exist. With Grid, they couldn’t.

The reason Apple’s iPad succeeded was not only because of the form factor, but because Apple also put an amazing amount of time and thought into how a tablet form factor works, feels in the hand and how the touch interface works. They gave people the understanding of how and why a tablet is useful… something Grid failed to do with the GRiDPad. It also didn’t hurt that Apple had a solid, robust operating system in MacOS X that they could tweak and use as a base to drive the user interface. Grid, on the other hand, didn’t. They didn’t build an ecosystem, they didn’t have an app store, they didn’t have a proper operating system, they didn’t really even have apps. There was the tablet, but on the other side of the equals sign there was nothing.

Apple’s design thought of nearly everything from top to bottom and from form to function to ecosystem. Apple offered the consumer the total package. Grid got the form down, but not the function. Apple nailed nearly everything about the iPad from the start.

In fact, Apple nailed so much about the iPad from the beginning, Apple has not actually been able to improve upon that design substantially. Everything that Apple has added to iOS has been created not to improve upon the touch UI, but to add missing features, like cut and paste and Siri. In fact, Siri is as equally important innovation to the iPad, but it’s not truly needed for the iPad. It’s much more important innovation for the iPhone, because of the hands free nature that a phone needs while driving. Siri is, in fact, the single most important achievement to create a safer driving experience… something you won’t be doing on an iPad, but you will be doing on an iPhone or Apple Watch.

Steve Jobs

The Apple achievements I mention wouldn’t have been possible without Steve Jobs. Steve was not only a truly masterful marketer, he was also a visionary. He may not have personally designed the product, but he knew exactly what he wanted in the device. He was definitely visionary when it came to simplicity of design, when combined with everyday life.

You definitely want simplicity. You want easy to access software systems. You want intuitive touch interfaces. You want to be able to get in and out of interfaces in one or two touches. You don’t want to dig ever deeper in menu after menu after menu simply to get to a single function. Steve Jobs very much endorsed Keep-It-Simple-Stupid (or the KISS) philosophy. For example, the creation of single button mice. The placing of a single button on the front of the iPad. These are all very much the KISS design philosophy. It’s what makes people’s lives easier rather than more complicated.

Unfortunately, after Steve Jobs’s death in 2011, that left a huge KISS gap at Apple, which as only widened since. Even iOS and MacOS X have succumbed to this change in design philosophy. Instead of adopting KISS, Apple has abandoned that design goal and, instead, replaced it with deeper and deeper menus, with more complicated UI interfaces, with less simplistic user experiences and with buggier releases. The bugs being simply an outcome of dropping the KISS design idea. More complicated software means more bugs. Less complicated software means less bugs.

Some might argue FaceID makes your life simpler. Yes, it might… when it works, at the added cost of privacy problems. Problems that were solved just as simply with TouchID, adding none of those nasty privacy issues.

Samsung and Apple

While Samsung played catch-up with Apple for quite a while, Samsung got ahead by buying into component manufacturing, including the manufacture of OLED screens. In fact, Samsung became one of the leaders in OLED screen fabrication. If there’s an OLED screen in a product, there’s a high likelihood it was made by Samsung.

This meant that most OLED Android smart phones contain a Samsung part even if the phone was designed and produce by LG or Huawei or Google. This component level aspect of Samsung’s technology strategy has helped Samsung produce some of the best looking and functioning Android smart phones. For this same reason and because of the Apple and Samsung rivalry, Apple shunned using OLED for far too long. Because of the ever continual Samsung vs. Apple argument, Apple refused to add OLED screens into their devices… thus stunting Apple’s ability to innovate in the iPhone space for many years.

The OLED screen also allowed Samsung to produce the first “phablet” (combination phone and tablet). Bigger than most smart phones, smaller than a tablet. It offered users a larger phone screen to better surf Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It was an iterative improvement to be sure, definitely not innovative in the truest sense. However, it definitely leapfrogged Samsung way ahead of Apple in screen quality and size. This is where Samsung leaped over Apple and made a serious niche for themselves… and it is also what propelled Android phones front and center. The “phablet” is what firmly propelled Samsung ahead of Apple and it is what has firmly kept them there.

In fact, Apple is now so far behind Samsung that it is now playing continual catch-up with it screen technologies, with wireless charging, with smart watches and with pretty much every other “innovation” Samsung has offered in since 2015.

One might argue that the AirPods were something new an innovative. Sure, but they were simply an iterative improvement over the EarPods (the wired version). The part of the AirPods that are, in fact, innovative is not the ear buds themselves, but the magnetic charging case. This case design is, in fact, the thing that sets these earbuds apart from every other set of wireless earbuds. This case, in fact, is one of the last few KISS design bastions I’ve seen come out of Apple. Unfortunately, as sleek as the case design is, the software behind it is equally as clumsy and not at all KISS in design.

The AirPods pair fast and easy using an instant recognizing system, but actually using the AirPods can be a chore. Sometimes the AirPods fail to connect at all. Sometimes one of them fails to connect. When a phone call comes in and you place an earbud in your ear, the phone still answers on the internal speaker even though the earbud is connected. When you try to move the audio to the earbud, the option is not even available. Sometimes you hear dropouts and stuttering while listening to music just inches away from the phone. Yes, the software is entirely clumsy. It’s so clumsy, in fact, it’s really something I would have expected to see from Android instead of iOS.

Commitment to Excellence

When Jobs was operating the innovation arm at Apple, the commitment to excellence was palpable. Since Jobs’s has left us, Apple’s commitment to excellence has entirely vanished. Not only are their products no longer being produced with the Jobs level of expected excellence, it’s not even up to a standard level of industry excellence. It’s now what one might expect to get from McDonald’s, not a three star Michelin rated restaurant. Apple, at one point, was effectively a three star Michelin-rated restaurant. Today, Apple is the Wendy’s of the computer world. Wendy’s is better than most and they make a good hamburger, but it is in no way gourmet. This is what Apple has become.

Samsung fares even worse. Samsung has never been known for its commitment to excellence. In fact, for a long time, I’ve been aware that Samsung’s products, while pretty and have great screens, are not at all built to last. They have small parts that wear out quickly and eventually break. Sometimes the units just outright fall apart. For the longest time I steered clear of Samsung products simply because their commitment to excellence was so far below Apple (even at where Apple is today), I simply couldn’t trust Samsung to produce a lasting product.

Recently, Samsung has mostly proven me wrong, at least for the Galaxy S5 and the Galaxy Tab S. This smart phone and tablet have held up amazingly well. The OLED screens still look tantalizingly sharp and crisp. The processors are still fast enough to handle most of what’s being pushed out today… which is still much better than the speed of an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 released around the same time. Apple’s products simply don’t stand up to the test of time. However, Samsung’s older products have. That’s a testament to the improved build quality of Samsung devices.

However, commitment to excellence is not a commitment to innovation. The two, while related, are not the same. I’d really like to see Apple and Samsung both commit to excellence in innovation instead of creating devices based on gimmicks.

Full Circle

We’ve explored a lot of different aspects of technology within this article. Let’s bring it all home. The point is that innovation, true innovation, is what drives technology forward. Iterative innovation does not. It improves a device slightly, but it waters down the device in the process. You don’t want to water down devices, you want to build new, innovative devices that improve our lives, make our homes better, faster, safer, easier… and make access to information quicker and, overall, help improve our daily lives.

We don’t want to fight with devices to hear our voices over a fan. We don’t want to have to guess the phrase to use with Siri through iterative trial-and-error to make it give us specific information. We don’t want to have to flash the phone in front of our faces several times before FaceID recognizes us. We don’t want to dig through menu, after menu, after menu simply to enable or disable a function. That’s not easy access, that’s complication. Complications belong on smart watches, not on phones.

In short, we need to get back to the KISS design philosophy. We need to declutter, simplify, make devices less obtuse and more straightforward. Lose the menus and give us back quick access to device functions. We need to make buttons bigger, rather than smaller on touch screens. Teeny-tiny buttons have no place on a touch screen. We’ve gone backwards rather than forwards with touch interfaces on tablets and phones… yes, even on iOS devices.

Folding phones are not simple. In fact, they are the opposite of simple. Simple is making phone usability easier, not more tricky. Adding a folding screen adds more complication to the phone, not less. Lose the folding. We need to shorten, simplify and reduce. We need to make mobile devices, once again, Steve Jobs simple.

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