Written by Paul Yoon
Get ready to say goodbye to tablets, e-readers, and laptops. Okay, maybe not anytime soon, but the potential is evident. If you’ve ever watched HBO’s Westworld you might have seen the characters use a sleek device to make phone calls and then unfold it to produce a tablet-like surface to type commands and navigate different applications. It’s also small and thin enough to fit into their pockets comfortably. Westworld suggests a future of flexible digital screens that might revolutionize our idea of electronics, and we might be closer to such a reality than you might think.
After many rumors in recent years about smartphone manufacturers working on foldable phones, Chinese startup company Royole released the first foldable phone, launching their FlexPai mobile device in November 2018. The device folds directly down the middle and sports a screen 7.8” wide in tablet mode (for reference, an iPhone X has a screen 2.8” wide and 5.7” high).
Right on time for the 10th anniversary of the Samsung Galaxy smartphone, Samsung released the Galaxy Fold in April 2019. The Fold is Samsung’s first generation of a phone-tablet hybrid. It folds down the middle like the FlexPai, although the screen folds in on itself, necessitating an additional screen on the other side, unlike the FlexPai. It has a respectable width of 7.3” in tablet mode.
However, although these devices look pretty incredible, you should be hesitant to be an early adopter.
Like any other new technology, foldable phones are in their early adoption phase where the products are often too expensive for the average customer, have mediocre quality, or both. For example, early smart watches and virtual reality headsets carried extremely high price points while delivering lackluster services or experiences. However, over time, costs decreased and product quality increased as research and development advanced the technology. For foldable tech, there are various issues with its current state. These foldable devices shown are bulky and probably won’t fit too comfortably in your pocket when folded up. In addition, early users of the FlexPai have reported creases forming on the screen, and time will tell if Samsung faces similar problems. And, of course, these devices have astronomical prices. The Flexpai and the Fold are roughly $1300 and $2000, respectively. However, expect foldable devices to become thinner, sturdier, and more affordable in coming years, as with any other personal electronic devices. At this point, it doesn’t seem too worth it for most people to adopt this technology unless they really want to witness first-hand the beginning of a technological revolution.
I say “technological revolution” with deliberation. I believe that this technology will completely change the game of personal electronics by eventually eliminating the need to have separate devices. Smartphones and tablets are becoming more powerful every day. Ten years ago it would have been ridiculous to think that a mobile device could serve many purposes that a laptop could, but the gap between the categories is only decreasing. The numbers back this up. Laptop ownership has declined from 78% of Americans to 73% within the last ten years. On the other hand, tablets have skyrocketed from 3% of American adults to 53% from 2008 – 2018. Smartphones have jumped from 35% in 2011 to 77% in 2018. We are seeing the convergence of smartphones and tablets. If one device can have the functionality and the computing power of all three categories, why not consolidate them all?
Imagine this scenario. You arrive to class a few minutes early and you whip your “smartphone” out of your pocket, catching up on social media. You come across a breaking news story. Unfolding your device into tablet-mode, you watch the news coverage on a wide screen. The professor walks in, and you switch over to your note-taking app. You extend the keyboard from the base of the screen and pull out an attached stand to prop up the device, ready to take notes. After class, you fold the device up and slip it back into your pocket. Although it might take some time before such a device is light enough, small enough, affordable enough, and functional enough, the future is coming.