I’m writing this for the year 2024. For the time when we’ll all know whether foldable phones were a mere fad or — more likely, in my opinion — they turned out to be the future of mobile computing. Whatever the outcome, I know for a fact that what took place at Mobile World Congress 2019 will be historic. It’ll be something we return to as either the cradle of a new era or as a cautionary tale about unrestrained ambition. In all cases, the story is a fun and exciting one.
Why do I think foldables will be such a big deal? Because the hype around them is earnest and enormous. Every part of the consumer tech food chain is alive and buzzing with excitement. Manufacturers have already poured millions of dollars into research and development for foldables, and we’re seeing patented and branded hinges (Enter the DragonHinge) that took years of engineering. Huawei worked on its Falcon Wing design for more than three years, and I’ve heard from a reliable source that Samsung had foldable tablets in its labs as early as 2011. Mobile carriers, according to IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo, can’t wait to get foldables into their stores, and they’re confident they’ll sell out of the newfangled devices immediately. Judging by the reaction of fellow tech journalists at MWC and readers and tech fans online, I think they’re right.
There is an unreasoning exuberance about foldables, one that you might more often see among sneakerheads salivating at an ultra-exclusive, limited production run. The closest we’ve come to that in tech in recent times might have been the release of the Apple Watch, which enthusiasts had to own immediately simply because it was so new and radically different. I think it’s notable that Apple, typically the trigger company for such maniacal hype, is absent here — to my judgment, this speaks to the growing confidence and capabilities of other companies more than it says anything about Apple. This would usually be a precarious situation for a new product category, as hardware manufacturers often try zany designs once and never again, but the sheer amount of interest and free marketing that Huawei, Samsung, and Royole, the first trio to debut foldable phones, have received tells me this device class is here to stay.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that foldables are a solved problem, not by any stretch of the imagination. I can confidently predict that in two years’ time we’ll see foldable phones refined enough to make the currently-futuristic Huawei Mate X look like a clumsy cave drawing. We’ll have screen protectors that stretch and flex with the foldable screen. And the price for a foldable will dip below $1,000 well before the end of 2020. Huawei’s Mate X and Samsung’s Galaxy Fold have set a high cost of entry with their $2000-and-up pricing, but I see those prices as a clever way to cover up the fact that neither company can produce millions of units yet. The Royole Flexpai is priced at $1,300 already, and Royole is a tiny company that lacks the budget to sell products at a loss.
Before MWC, I wasn’t convinced that the market for foldables as a premium tech product existed, but the quality of Huawei’s Mate X and the concordantly effusive reaction it’s received from all corners assures me that it’s there. It also means that a whole bunch of other companies that had been watching from the sidelines — Xiaomi and Oppo, both of whom have teased their own foldables, as well as likely candidates like Asus and Acer — will now probably greenlight their own foldable projects. Ahead of MWC, LG said that it’s not doing a foldable yet, but now that this hype bomb has been dropped, I imagine Samsung’s compatriot will be dusting off its foldable blueprints and prioritizing their development.
More than anything, foldables are exciting to me because of the exponential rate of improvement they have shown. The Royole Flexpai, which I got to handle in January, was unquestionably bad, the Galaxy Fold that was announced last week remains so mysterious that I classify it as questionably good, and the Huawei Mate X that arrived this past weekend trumps everything before it and has the potential to be great. Now, obviously we can’t expect that rate of progress every month, but I still foresee an MWC 2020 overrun with foldable devices of ever-improving quality and ever-decreasing price.
For now, for this moment in 2019 and for the future when we’ll look back at the big coming-out party of foldables, here’s a brief recap of all the action from MWC and its buildup.
That’s the sum of it: three foldable devices that I’ve gotten to see with my own eyes, two more that have slipped out onto the internet, one early prototype, and a metric ton of explosive potential. For anyone tired of seeing smartphone displays improving by fractions of an inch every year and processor performance creeping up from good to great, foldables are a hugely refreshing change of pace. I’ve been coming to MWC for a decade now, and this year’s show has transported me back to the first time I came in 2010: when Android phone makers were experimenting with all sorts of sizes and shapes, slider keyboards were a still thing, and Android was still years away from its transformative Ice Cream Sandwich update (thank you, Matias Duarte).
That software bit. That’s the one massive hurdle for hardware makers to overcome if they’re to convert the current hype into a successful line of premium foldable phones. I’ve handled the Mate X, and its physical design feels almost ready to go on sale — it’s only the hinge that gave me concern, but Huawei has four months to make that smooth as butter. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold also appears to be a mature industrial design that’s unlikely to change before release. But can we trust Samsung to do superlative software for a completely new form factor? Has Huawei ever shown itself to be a software design leader? Both of these companies have made their mobile living by ripping off Apple’s iOS for years, and it’s only recently that they’ve started developing and asserting their own taste for good user-facing concepts. Google has promised to help make Android foldables a success, and I think what Google does will be the key.
One day, we might very well talk of single-sided smartphones in the same nostalgic way we now speak of devices with external antennas, monochrome screens, and fixed-focus lenses. But for that to happen, for foldables to take over as the defining smartphone form factor, a whole lot of software muscle will have to be flexed. The hardware will be good, MWC has shown us that already.