You probably have a clear image of what a smartphone looks like. If someone asks you to sketch it from memory, you’ll likely go the same route many people tend to: A large rectangle housing a smaller one as the screen and a couple of specks for the buttons thrown in here and there.
It’s not your fault that you came up with a generic outline; that’s exactly what most manufacturers have been doing since the inception of smartphones. In fact, the fundamental design elements of nearly each major consumer tech product like tablets, televisions, and laptops have remained largely identical as well.
Recently, a new breed of foldable devices has steadily begun to bend that blueprint. Over the past year, their flexible displays have enabled form factors that are unlike the designs that have dominated the industry for the last decade.
But they haven’t always left a positive first impression. After all, nearly every foldable so far has run into critical snags before their public launch. The Samsung Galaxy Fold was recalled for design and durability issues with the display. The Motorola Razr’s plastic screen had one of its layers peel up and the hinge is notoriously, sometimes jarringly, creaky and stuttery, as though it were broken. Even Samsung’s second folding phone, the Galaxy Z Flip, encountered a mild controversy with the folding glass display when YouTuber JerryRigEverything discovered a plastic film on top of it. Then there are the extravagant $1400+ price tags they carry.
These setbacks have led many to question foldable tech’s durability and whether it’s even filling a need at all. What people seem to overlook in the latter argument is flexible screens’ broader implications. They’re greater than the sum of a few early-stage products.
Shaping the next decade of consumer tech
Foldables are a precursor to an era of more versatile computing. It’s the kind of versatility phone makers have been trying to achieve with various software tricks and a few design choices in an attempt to address our evolving mobile workflows. Crucially, foldable displays allow companies to do more with their offerings without raising devices’ sizes to obnoxious levels.
To understand this, simply look at the fleet of foldable phones we’ve seen so far. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and the latest Huawei Mate Xs are tablets that fold up into the size of phones. The Motorola Razr and Galaxy Z Flip are large-screen phones that can be flipped into a much more pocketable form factor. Even the latest concepts from TCL show their use, with one unfurling the screen like a scroll from a phone to a mini tablet, and the other, a trifold, transforming from a phone-sized screen to a full-sized 10-inch tablet.
Foldable displays aren’t relegated to phones either. At CES earlier this year, Lenovo previewed the first foldable PC, which has a full-fledged 13.3-inch screen that folds up into a tiny book-like case. The flexible display allows the ThinkPad X1 Fold to be a large-screen tablet or a laptop-like device whenever the user’s needs change.
There’s even a kickstand for when you want to prop it up like a monitor and connect an external keyboard. By folding it halfway, one section of the screen becomes a wide touch keyboard or you can place a proper physical keyboard over it if you prefer. Lenovo is also planning to sell an easel-style stand for placing the screen at a more convenient angle.
Microsoft’s dual-screen efforts could benefit, as well. At the moment, dual-display devices such as the Surface Duo and Surface Neo are simply safer bets — and key for a new venture like Windows 10X. A year or two down the line, it’s likely Microsoft will tweak its new dual-screen operating system to accommodate flexible screens that let users easily switch between a regular Windows experience or a dual-screen mode when bent halfway.
It’s also changing the way we use televisions as companies like LG continue to rethink their future. The South Korea-based manufacturer has introduced TVs that roll back into a piece of furniture to save space or transform a room’s purpose instantly. It recently even teased a TV that unfurls right from the ceiling and rolls back in when inactive.
Besides, this isn’t the first time a radical new technology has faced backlash and criticism. Years ago, it happened with Samsung’s bold move to launch the “phablets” that we today simply call smartphones. One of the more recent victims were smartwatches, which were not well-received early on but went mainstream just a generation or two later.
The foldable era is just getting started
Flexible screens unlock several new possibilities for the phones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and who-knows-what-else of tomorrow. Companies like Samsung know that which is why they’ve been trying to figure this tech out since as early as 2011. Dismissing it as gimmicky from the perspective of a few first-gen products is both unjust and premature. In the next couple of years, we can expect the rest of the manufacturers to try their hand at foldable devices, which will hopefully bring down their prices as devices become more refined and reliable.