Sheldon PintoFeb 21, 2019 17:25:30 IST
We have been fed with ideas and concepts of smartphones with folding displays for years thanks to science fiction. From the more recent foldable sheet of glass in Westworld to the pull-out bendy displays in older flicks like Minority Report, we think we've seen it all. And every time we saw one in a movie or a TV show, we knew that it was an impossible reality and that we'd be long dead by the time such a display would become reality.
But thanks to the gradual drop in smartphones sales over the years, smartphone brands were forced to go back to the drawing board and come up with some seemingly innovative features. In the past two years, we have seen some crazy new trends, from display notches to pop-up cameras, bezel-less displays, hole-punch displays and more recently, button-less smartphones. While some of these may have taken years to develop, most feel like jugaads that were cooked up overnight to accommodate a bezel-less display, which is the current trend that every manufacturer is chasing.
Flexible displays had almost taken a back seat simply because a lot of investment of time and money is required for development.
Two names come up when one talks about flexible displays: LG and Samsung. While we haven’t heard from LG in a while, Samsung has been a name that has popped up in the rumour mill for years, with its patent applications repeatedly teasing fans, geeks and customers about a forthcoming foldable smartphone.
We all expected the folding smartphone to look like the folding tablet from Westworld.
A flat sheet of glass that opens into a computer and folds back to become compact enough to place in your pocket.
But Samsung put all those rumours and dreams to rest when it announced its first ‘foldable’, the Galaxy Fold at its Unpacked 2019 event.
It looks beautiful and definitely premium even though it kind of reminds me of the good old Nokia Communicator with a usable display and keypad on the front and the same layout inside with the fold opened.
Pegged as Samsung’s tenth anniversary Galaxy, the Fold even packs in the latest hardware that is almost identical to what you get on the Galaxy S10+. Despite the folding mechanism, it is interesting to see how Samsung’s engineers crammed in so much and created a working smartphone that looks so beautiful.
It definitely won’t feature an IP rating like the S10 models and it features a massive notch on the inner display to let you click photos no matter which mode you are in. You can run three apps at a time or simply use the same (supported) app in a tablet configuration as well if you need to view the details on a bigger display. It’s a device I personally have dreamt about for several years, coming from a generation that got to witness the birth of feature phones with primitive LCD displays, to WAP, to 4G and now being able to stream HDR10 video.
So why am I a bit worried about the most innovative smartphone in recent years?
In short, it’s not about what the Samsung Galaxy Fold can do, but about what will hold it back.
More ‘foldables’ needed
Samsung’s success with the Galaxy Fold also banks on similar devices coming from other smartphone giants like the smart-looking two fold device showcased by Xiaomi. There’s one expected to be showcased by Huawei at the upcoming MWC 2019 event and another one from Motorola (a RAZR reincarnation).
(P.S.: Tech2'll be at MWC, so be sure to follow us on Twitter and YouTube for updates from the venue.)
It’s only when the trend catches up that app developers will start work on optimising their third-party Android apps for use on these larger, foldable displays, ones that will change the configurations of apps from mobile to tablet (or app continuity) on the fly.
Samsung did showcase plenty of bravado on stage on this front. Plus it has also been working closely with Google, which means it’s getting all the help it can. SVP of Product Marketing Justin Denison on stage also mentioned that popular apps like WhatsApp and Microsoft’s Office apps will support the ‘app continuity’ feature that the device is meant to showcase as a foldable.
But Samsung as always will still be at the mercy of developers or apps, which could ruin the core experience by letting apps just run in a productive yet boring mobile mode (portrait) instead of switching to a well-laid out tablet mode, a mode that the Google Play Store barely supports on its tablets currently. In fact, the store barely has a good selection of tablet-ready apps in comparison to the App Store's larger selection.
Pricing will keep folding smartphones away from the usual premium smartphone buyer who, in India (with billions of users), is hardly likely to spend more than Rs 70,000 for a premium phone.
Even if Samsung has managed to convince an iPhone XS Max user (Pricing for which starts at Rs 1,09,900) to switch, few will be ready to switch from iOS to Android no matter how much Samsung refines its already polished One UI software. Android is no iOS and the same applies the other way round.
The Galaxy Note did it first
It’s a vicious circle for Samsung and it always has been this way for a decade where developers have barely shown interest in Samsung’s Galaxy S Pen stylus, which sits inside every Note phablet. Market research has proven (and Apple too) that everyone loves big displays, so if you can give Note lovers a small phone that opens up into a big one, Samsung may already have a winner with the Fold.
While many may have forgotten the humble Galaxy Note that took almost a decade for Samsung to refine, it’s a shining example of Samsung knowing its market well and putting its faith in users.
The Galaxy Fold appears to be a much more polished product than the Note when it was first launched back in 2011. And now it’s time for a new smartphone category (the foldable) that merges the two to deliver something practical and new, breathing some much-needed fresh air into the smartphone space from a usability standpoint.
Despite the folding form factor, Samsung has managed to squeeze in similar camera hardware as on its S10+, which also means that it's not going to be a case of all show and no go as with the many concept-like smartphones we have seen in the past year. But none of that really matters to the ultra-premium segment buyers who will purchase this smartphone for its looks and that folding display.
The Galaxy Fold may not end up being its bestselling smartphone a year later, but it currently sets the benchmark for other brands (including Apple, if and when it wishes) to build on and take forward. The Galaxy Note was a success story for Samsung, so it’s not hard to see the Galaxy Fold succeeding in its own way.
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