Samsung's foldable display belongs on the wrist, not the phone


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Renders of Samsung’s next big screened novelty have started to capture the tech news of late, with designs of a folding phone that is said to be Samsung’s next attempt to increase their share of the smartphone market. Now, what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism of Samsung’s tendency to introduce weird and wonderful features into their product line, even though I still might not be fully convinced of the virtues of their curved edge displays that have been part of their mainstream flagship offering since the S8. To my mind, they still serve no desirable purpose and cause unwanted reflections at the sides of my display.

it is innovation like Samsung’s foldable OLED displays that have led to products like the iPhone X

But, no, it is innovation like Samsung’s foldable OLED displays that have led to products like the iPhone X, whose true brilliance lies not in its notched display nor face-scanning tech, but in its continued unique position almost a year from when it was first announced in still being the only phone on the market without a discernible chin thanks to its display that folds in on itself back into the body of the phone.

Without that foldable OLED technology from Samsung, the iPhone X would just be another Moto P30 (ouch).

But just as Samsung’s investment in flexible OLED was used in a better way in the iPhone X than any of Samsung’s own flagship devices, the screen technology shown in these renders of Samsung’s potential folding phone similarly lies elsewhere - this time, not on the phone at all, but on the wrist.

One of the reasons the smartphone market has seemed a little stale to tech enthusiasts over the past couple of years is the way it has settled on the ‘one-form-to-rule-them-all’ design of a rectangular piece of glass with rounded edges. Crazy designs like fold-out keyboards, clamshell devices and twistable cameras are all but extinct and almost every phone on the market seems to be a clone of every other device with only the goofy name given to the OEM’s particular shade of grey/black to differentiate between them. Even the dreaded notch, first seen barely a year ago on the Essential Phone, is now seemingly universal.

In a saturated market with razor-thin profit margins for the majority of players, doing anything different is a way to stand out, even if it doesn’t really add anything to the experience.

Samsung’s foldable phone is a perfect example of this. Having a fold-out screen doesn’t really add anything to the experience apart from inconvenience. Sure, it means the display might be a bit bigger when folded out, but it’s going to add a lot more bulk to your pocket ALL THE REST OF THE TIME thanks to its SurfaceBook-style hinge. Besides, outliers in the size department (like Samsung’s own Galaxy Note series) are not the biggest sellers in their product line anyway and big screen tablet devices tend to be what you pass your kid when they’re bored rather than a device you’d want to use as frequently as your phone. Yet just by existing, it helps shake Samsung’s old reputation as a copycat-company and promote it as an innovator in its own right to everyday consumers who otherwise wouldn’t know any better.

This on its own is a good enough reason for Samsung to pursue the idea of flexible display tech. But as long as they intend to use the technology in a foldable phone, they miss a much better place for it to exist: the wrist.

Having something strapped to your wrist does have its advantages: you’re never likely to leave it behind in the coffee shop or have it slip out of your pocket if it is physically attached to you. But even with features such as LTE and GPS, the modern smartwatch is still very much an accessory to the smartphone. Apps on the wrist have all but failed and the things serve as little more than health trackers and accessible notification management. If you want those features, you’re still going to need to have a smartphone to support them.

This is where Samsung’s foldable device comes in.

Right now, the renders show the screen folding in on itself. The screen ends up hidden on the inside. What should really happen is precisely the opposite: the device should fold in a gentle curve, with the screen facing outward, so it can fit around the wrist. Have whatever straps or clips or other fittings are seen appropriate to give it a secure enough fit - but the point is we now have a fully functional smartwatch that can be straightened out to similar proportions to the modern smartphone. Indeed, if my feeble and amateurish measurements are to give any indication of what is possible, there is easily enough room in the circumference of the wrist to have a device with a screen size as big or bigger than many of the devices on the market today. And it's something that companies like Lenovo have already considered in concept products.

Stick in the right sensors, give it decent battery life and maybe even throw in a little bit of DeX and you've got one hell of a product.

There are, of course, problems with this idea that would need addressing before any company could actually start producing such a device suitable for the general public. Logic boards and power cells would have to be reduced in size and designed in a way that let them fit within the curve of the device when sat around the wrist. The interface would have to be letterboxed or completely redesigned so the user didn’t have to twist their wrist to read to the end of a text. But the advantages for the user in terms of fashion through adaptable always-on displays around the wrist, convenience and - potentially - cost make the design a more-than-desirable goal.

The reality of having a wrap-around smart device for the wrist is still years off. No company is even releasing any serious roadmaps at this time towards such a product. But just as the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge (a device whose novelty outweighed its function) developed a technology that enabled the creation of one of the greatest mobile devices ever produced, Samsung’s folding phone may hold a similar promise of hope of a huge leap forward hidden among the hype.

The dream of 'one-device-to-rule-them-all' is about to get one step closer to reality.