Samsung starts the foldable phone trend

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There were a slew of big announcements at Samsung's annual phone event this morning, but one overshadowed the entire thing: the company is shipping its first-generation foldable smartphone this year. Yes, it's real, it's chunky, and it's a whopping $1,899.

We knew foldable phones were coming, but the race to market was faster than I expected: Samsung's going to start selling this glorified prototype in April of this year. It works like this: the phone sports a 7.3-inch "Infinity Flex" display, which can be folded down to a more phone-friendly 4.6-inch phone display. There's two batteries onboard, separated by the hinge in the middle, but combined into one in the operating system so you'd know none the wiser.

What's not really clear, outside of the sci-fi appeal of folding your phone into a tablet, is whether or not it's really useful at all? The idea behind the switchable modes is that when you want to do work the tablet mode will allow up to three apps to be run side-by-side, almost like adding a second monitor to your desktop computer.

The reaction I had to the event, and keep coming back to, was one of skepticism: this seems like a move designed to stimulate a rapidly contracting industry and find new buyers somehow. Who is this for, though? It's part phone, sometimes tablet, and exceedingly thick, let alone a device that's so early to market that Samsung wouldn't even let journalists touch it, likely because the software isn't ready yet.

Folding phones feel like a fad, but there might be something there long-term: people are carrying multiple devices in their backpacks today like a laptop, tablet and phone, so merging them into a single surface that can adapt to the need of the user's task might be interesting. 

The potential long-term is clearly there, otherwise every major company wouldn't be working on this right now (we've seen rumors of everyone from Xiaomi to Microsoft working on foldable devices). The short-term, however, seems a little dangerous: in classic hardware fashion, it's half-baked products that arrive early to the market and kill the appeal for consumers. 

It certainly seems like we're about to engage in the same race that we saw with VR and AR, where consumer interest was piqued, then the reality of actually using those technologies came crashing in. Folding phones risk the same fate even if they're a good idea, because related technologies haven't arrived yet, like Android's system-level support for 'foldables' and any sort of app developer interest.

Still, the foldable Samsung phone is a declaration: we can do this! It looks cool, even if it isn't particularly useful, and Samsung wants to claim the throne of first to market. My advice? Do not buy this phone. Wait out what happens with the rest of the industry, and give the technology time to mature. 

It's likely going to take a long time to iterate to a point where it makes sense over a traditional smartphone, and the point I'll be watching for is the answer to a simple question: could a folding device replace my phone, tablet and computer? If not, I'll just keep my regular non-folding phone, for now.


All the other Samsung stuff

The Galaxy Fold overshadowed the wider Samsung event, but a whole bunch of random stuff was unveiled beyond that. Here's a few notes I took during the morning, and their related pieces of news:

  1. Samsung Galaxy S10 is a feature-loaded phone with everything from a ultra color-accurate display to a camera-cutout embedding the lenses inside the screen. The only way to differentiate in the smartphone market right now seems to be slathering features all over the device, like a headphone jack orin-display fingerprint reader, to stand out from the rest of the slabs.
  2. The first real Airpods competitor might be here in the 'Galaxy Buds' which are both cheaper, and charge wirelessly. One cool thing: Samsung's new phone can send power to a device wirelessly, so it can charge these by placing them on it, which seems really quite useful.
  3. "5G" was a common theme, but Samsung has decided to hock support for the next-generation standard in a separate upgraded version of each product to keep prices reasonable. Essentially, it's optional, but also definitely not worth buying at this stage, given it's so in flux today.
  4. new Galaxy Watch refines the company's wearable, removes the fancy rotating bezel, and shows an ongoing commitment to actually playing in the smartwatch market for the long haul.

​Zuckerberg talks to a Harvard professor about privacy

Facebook's CEO wanted to engage in public discussions this year, and it's off to a banging start. He went to Harvard law to discuss privacy, encryption and so on. But, just 36 minutes in, this awkward exchange happened: 

“I basically think that if you want to talk in metaphors, messaging is like people’s living room, and we definitely don’t want a society where there’s a camera in everyone’s living room,” said Zuckerberg. Zittrain pointed out that people are happily installing Facebook’s own smart camera–the Portal–in their living rooms. Zuckerberg laughed. “That is I guess… yeah.”

Yes, not only did Zuckerberg self-own on the first public discussion he held, it was in such a spectacular way he basically condemned his own product. 

Portal is supposedly a flagship device within Facebook, and is the company's answer to Google Home and Alexa, but it was held back over concerns users would balk on the basis of privacy in 2018. Still, just months later it shipped, stripped of the facial recognition and always-on camera features, along with a mysteriously out of place tiny plastic clip to cover the camera. An admirable attempt at pretending to have considered user privacy, but obviously an afterthought. 

It's interesting to see Zuckerberg trying to engage, and the actual video is worth watching, if a bit painful to sit through. It covers everything from whether or not Facebook should offer an ad-free subscription (a 'hard no' from Zuckerberg) to how the company considers encryption at scale.