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Foldable, yes, but what about functional?

So the Mobile World Congress (MWC) has folded up for this year. Literally. For it seems that this was the edition when everyone and their granny seemed to turn up with a phone that could fold, or at least had plans for the same. All of which might sound wonderfully innovative, but I am tempted to wonder: is there any major consumer benefit in the whole fuss or is this just a classic case of form triumphing over function?

For, let’s face it, the biggest benefit that this innovation is supposed to hand us is the combination of a larger display within a smaller form factor. Or a sort of tablet within the form factor of a phone. All right, make that a slightly bulky phone. We have already seen the efforts of a few companies in this regard, most notably Huawei and Samsung, and even as this is being written, some people are coming out with “concepts” of an iPad that can fold into an iPhone.

Want it really simplified? A phone that folds out and becomes a tablet of sorts.

Well, I hate to rain on the foldable parade but this is not really a new concept. It has been tried in the past – most notably with the Nokia Communicator series, which tried to be a phone that could fold out and become a sort of mini-notebook (a tablet was still something that you got from a chemist those days). The core idea was still the same: a larger display which is revealed when you fold out the smaller one. And to be honest, I think it worked a treat, especially with the Nokia E90, which came with a terrific keyboard and much larger 4-inch display inside a frame that had a 2-inch display on the outside. Even the Moto Razr had the same idea – a tiny display outside, and a larger keyboard and display when you opened the phone. In fact, flip phones all seemed to operate on the same concept of a compact exterior and a more elaborate interior. And the concept has been successful too. The Razr and the Communicator were iconic devices. And the concept was not limited to phones. Nintendo in particular made a killing with using the foldable form factor with the GameBoy Advance and the DS. And hey, let’s face it, even the good old notebook is basically a foldable device, isn’t it? And look how well it has worked for so many of us.

Which of course might make some wonder as to why I am being so cynical about the current and forthcoming foldable phones.

Well, my reason is simple, and before you ask, it has nothing to do with the price of these devices. All new innovations tend to be expensive initially, and their prices dip once they are produced in larger numbers. No, the reason for my cynicism as regards foldable phones is far more basic: they do not really add much to our experience. Yes, you do get access to a larger display once the phone folds out. But well, this is not 2008, you know. We ALREADY have displays that are large enough. Yes, there was a stage when they seemed to be getting a bit too big for comfort, but thanks to the emergence of the notch, pop up cameras and the like, suddenly, we find ourselves carrying devices with 6-inch displays without too many problems in our pockets and bags. Do note that the expanded displays of the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X are 7.3 inches and 8 inches, respectively. Yes, they are large but they do not really represent a massive step ahead of what we already have (the iPhone XS Max is a 6.5-inch display and Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ has a 6.4-inch one).

So we would be ending up with devices that are heavier and bulkier than conventional phones, while having displays that were only slightly larger – certainly not like the E90 which had an internal display that was twice the size of its external one. What’s more, with the arrival of higher resolutions, the battery consumption is likely to be insanely high in the new generation of foldable phones – as per what I have heard the Mate X will have a battery of about 4500mAh, while the Galaxy Fold will have one of 4380mAh. That’s just a bit bigger than the 4000mAh one on the Galaxy S10+, which has only a single screen to contend with. I leave the math to you.

There is another dimension to functionality – devices like the Communicator or the Nintendo DS did not just simply focus on using foldables to deliver larger displays in smaller form factors. They used the folding factor to bring in other functionalities – a larger keyboard in the case of the Communicator and a second touchscreen for controls on the DS. On the other hand, the current lot of foldable devices seem to be fixated just on making a bigger display, which as I have already pointed out, is not really the sort of problem it once was. How about a keyboard, a special stylus pad, or heck, even a gaming control panel? Just a thought.

For the way I see it, for a product to be really relevant, it has to add something to our existing experience. We already have enough large and high resolution displays as it is – the foldable phones, for all their snazzy designs, will only add to them, and not too significantly either in terms of size. For foldable phones to really work, I think they would need to be a little more than just a larger version of an external display. That’s the whole reason why the Android tablet movement fizzled out – most Android tablets were nothing but extended versions of Android phones (unlike the iPad, which had significant differences from the iPhone).

The foldable phones are here, yes. But how long they will stay is going to depend on just what they deliver in terms of function. Right now, it seems to be just a slightly bigger display and a bit of “hey, this is different” flauntability. That is good for getting attention. But I doubt if it is going to be enough to make it big.

Design is, after all, how it works. Not how it looks.

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Nimish Dubey

Nimish Dubey has been writing on technology since 1999. He has contributed to a number of publications and websites including The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Mint, Economic Times, Outlook, and India Today. He is currently the Editorial Mentor at TechPP.com and a regular contributor to Indian Express. When not writing, he loves to read and listen to classic rock.