Foldables herald the beginning of the end of the smartphone fetish

Un-gadgeting the gadget

woman kisses her cellphone/mobile phone

MWC Analysis Until a week ago, many people were sceptical that foldable smartphones would be anything more than a gimmick. I was probably one of them.

In the past few days Huawei and Samsung have launched products at prices that ensure very few buyers; they're really asking the rich to crowdfund experimental production runs of flexible OLED devices. But each has made a convincing argument that this apparent extravagance has practical value.

I wonder if there was a bit of Stockholm syndrome about the pre-unveiling scepticism. The basic rectangular smartphone slab does everything you need today. Plenty of no-name models were being exhibited on the MWC show floor for under $99. But what if the slab could also transform into something that did some things much better?

There's a lot of value putting a collapsible display into a small form factor. The morning newspaper feels a bit like a morning newspaper. A map is much more of a map (a map isn't a map until the place name is awkwardly straddling a fold of course). Passing around family photos requires less squinting by everyone. More people can see it at once. Content on a foldable display becomes two contradictory things at once: more immersive, and less klaxon-like in demanding of your attention (since it's part of a multi-window display). I can imagine that the majority of phones will be foldable in ten years – because, once the price difference becomes minimal, why wouldn't they?

A foldable also becomes much more of a forgiving, discreet everyday object than a glass slab. One of the ironies of the next decade may be that with software having "eaten" so many other objects, phones can now resemble a pre-digital household object: a paperback book, or a roll-up scroll. If we haven't seen such outré designs as fold-out fans and coils, it won't be long before we do.

And this in turn promises to bring about another revolution in consumer taste – what you might call the "defetishisation" of technology. It's inevitable as prices fall and familiarity increases, the object becomes fetishised less and more of a dog-eared piece of household litter. But so far smartphones have resisted this trend. They retain their high price because size (small is convenient) competes with a demand for high fidelity (more pixels is better), which requires small but very expensive displays. Which in turn requires a hefty old battery to power it.

That tension is broken when the size of the display increases, and the thing can be bashed about a bit more. I'd expect flexible phones to resemble books, say, like your dog-eared A to Z. Some important smartphone tasks, like calls and messaging, do not require a large expensive hi-rez glass display – remember how well you could do them on an old BlackBerry. All this points to a move away from the fetishisable glass slab for something more convenient.

That day is a long way away, though, and plenty of questions remain about the quality and durability of the flexible material. Huawei's decision to put the display on the outside of the folds exposes it to everyday nicks, dents and scratches. Samsung's clunkier "paperback" design doesn't. Apple treads the most perilous path here as exemplar of the fetishisation of technology into expensive fashion products. It has more to lose than anyone if a sack of potatoes loses its silk wrapping. Judging by its extensive IP filings, Apple has been preparing for foldables (and wearables, such as its IP for a "health glove") for many years – the site Patently Apple has a whole section devoted to these filings. It doesn't want to be left with two has-been products. You can bet Apple's foldable will be introduced at a suitably stratospheric price.

For the foreseeable future, foldables and wearables are interesting not because they're sexy new gadgets, but because they ultimately promise to deliver us from sexy new gadgets altogether.

I can't wait. ®

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