Samsung’s push for foldable displays

At Samsung’s developer conference yesterday the company unveiled a futuristic phone that folds out into a tablet, just like in Westworld. The only catch: it showed the phone off in the dark, so we don’t actually know what it looks like yet.

The idea of folding phones is tempting indeed; such a form factor would allow a combination of tablet and phone on a single device, as well as the ability to get a little extra screen space on demand by just folding it out.

Google has even come to the party with native Android support for what it calls “foldables” becoming a part of the operating system next year. That new API helps developers deal with displays that could change size or layout at any time, a problem that isn’t even really resolved on devices like the iPad today.

I’m not convinced that this is more than a marketing gimmick than much else; the practical realities of such a device make it vastly more complicated than existing smartphone hardware to use, as well as requiring them to get thicker overall to facilitate the underlying technology.

Tablet sales, which have been declining slowly, don’t exactly scream consumer demand either. Do people want their phone to be a tablet? Or is a smartphone sized-device convenient enough? I’d hazard a guess the average teenager is happy to do everything from a phone.

The technology largely seems designed to help stimulate phone sales by having something different. Lots of questions remain, as well, such as whether or not bendable designs are durable enough to keep up with people’s lives — can one over-bend a screen?

Like 3DTV, curved displays, 3D phone displays, and every other fancy technology before it, I approach foldable displays with caution. Often, these ideas look really great and demo really well, but mostly don’t  improve the user experience in a meaningful way.

Samsung says it’ll ship its first bendable phone in 2019, but I’m not holding my breath that they’ll meet that date, let alone find the consumer demand required to bother selling these. Still, I’m happy to be wrong, because they look cool.

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