MWC 2019: Are foldable phones ushering in a new segment of smartphones?

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Updated: February 26, 2019 7:25:14 AM

Are the first foldable phones ushering in a new segment in smartphone industry?

Despite the bunch of engineering fetes going into these devices, analysts like Jeff Fieldhack of Counterpoint fear that the early versions will be clunky and compromised. (Representational photo/Reuters)

Ever since the first iPhone, well over a decade ago, the smartphone segment has evolved, mutated and stagnated. The plateau in technology had become so evident across devices that users started holding on to phones longer. There just isn’t enough to interest them to push for an early update.

But things could change with what Samsung announced in San Francisco last week. DJ Koh, Samsung Electronics’s president and CEO of IT & Mobile Communications Division, called it the “next chapter in mobile innovation,” big enough to change “what’s possible in a smartphone.” Within days, Huawei followed up with its Mate X, which looks at the fold from a whole new perspective.

Although there has been at least one other foldable device before it, Samsung’s new Galaxy Fold can well be called the start of a whole new category. Samsung says its foldable phone is meant for those who “want to experience what a premium foldable device can do, beyond the limitations of a traditional smartphone.”

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So, the Galaxy Fold is a somewhat old-looking smartphone, which unfolds to present a stunning 7.3-inch screen inside powered by an Infinity Flex Display—a hinge under it that cannot be seen. In contrast, the Mate X looks like a regular smartphone from the front with a 6.3-inch display. It has a display at the rear, too, and when you bring that up front, the two screens combine to offer an 8-inch tablet. So, while you literally have to open the Galaxy Fold to get a better experience, on the Mate X you need to unfold only if you need a larger screen for something.

Both phones are still well under wraps, though official launch dates have been announced. And both can potentially change the way we work on a smartphone, especially with multitasking. The Galaxy Fold, for instance, offers three-app multitasking for the first time ever. But then I’m wondering why we never wanted that on a tablet with a larger screen where it would have been a more logical feature to have.

A lot of what the Galaxy Fold will do will be based on what Samsung calls App Continuity. So, if you, let’s say, watch a Facebook video on the small front screen of the folded phone, you can open the Galaxy Fold to watch the video in full screen—in what should be a seamless experience. Huawei, too, will need to have something similar. That certainly has the potential, at least for a certain set of users. And if you spoil that experience, it also has the potential to ruin this segment itself.

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Despite the bunch of engineering fetes going into these devices, analysts like Jeff Fieldhack of Counterpoint fear that the early versions will be clunky and compromised. He says while the fluidness of the tablet mode in the Galaxy Fold is nice and better than the versions seen at CES 2019, but the device appears to be “severely girthy and compromised.” And the phones will be niche for a while—the $1,980 price tag of the Galaxy Fold and the costlier Mate X (almost $2,600) ensure that. Frank Gillett, vice-president at Forrester Research, says Samsung needs to deliver on the promised folding phones in order to maintain leadership. But we need to wait and see how the production challenges are taken care of.

With the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, we can safely expect a bit more one-upmanship from rival brands. Those still not close to a product they can sell, will at least try and tease something to keep users happy. There will be more gimmicks that hardcore technology. For now, we know that companies are perfecting the hinge, figuring out what is the best way to make use of this form factor.

Meanwhile, there is one question everyone seems to have missed: Does the user really want a foldable smartphone?

(nandagopal.rajan@indianexpress.com)

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