Google Is Working on a Foldable Phone Prototype, Too

 

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It seems as though everyone is throwing their collective hats into the ring around the idea of a foldable phone, despite the demonstrated failure of the single company that attempted to launch one. Now we know Google is also prototyping the idea.

The head of Pixel design, Mario Queiroz, confirmed that Google has experimented with foldable phones and could bring the technology to market at some point. “We’re definitely prototyping the technology. We’ve been doing it for a long time,” Queiroz said in an interview last week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. But, he added, “I don’t think there’s a clear use case yet.”

According to Queiroz, the problem with foldable technology is that while such devices are nice, they aren’t must-haves, and he doesn’t view the technology as sufficient, in and of itself, to drive major uptake. Queiroz later reiterated that Google has no immediate plans to bring the technology to market, preferring to focus on the just-unveiled Pixel 3A and Pixel 3A XL. This makes sense for multiple reasons, not the least of which are the difficulties Samsung has encountered with its own product.

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As my colleague Ryan Whitwam detailed yesterday, Samsung has told customers it will be canceling pre-orders unless they specifically choose to opt-in and keep them. The implication that the primary issue with foldable phones is the utility of the fold isn’t true. Think about it. In a perfect world, do you want a phone with a variable-size screen that doesn’t harm usability, durability, price, weight, or software support? If the ability to make your phone’s screen larger or smaller at will had no negative impact on the rest of the device, of course you’d take it.

Nobody griped about missing pixelated screens when Apple introduced the first Retina displays on the iPhone 4. Nobody would gripe about missing the days when smartphones came in one single screen size, either. The use case of a bigger screen is self-evident. Even buyers like myself, who openly prefer small devices, acknowledge larger screens are better for seeing and interacting with many types of content. I’m an evangelist of small phones, but if Apple could sell me an iPhone SE that selectively got bigger, when I wanted it to, at the same price as the $350 I paid for my current device, with no loss of reliability or durability, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

The real reason Google hasn’t moved forward to commercialize this idea is price. Ultimately, all of the arguments against a foldable phone based on the technology we saw on the Galaxy Fold come down to cost — and not just the cost of the initial purchase. The cost and need for repairs have to be factored in as well. iFixit didn’t call the Galaxy Fold “alarmingly fragile” for no reason. Users have come to expect waterproofing, or at least water resistance in high-end devices. The Galaxy Fold had 7mm gaps allowing debris free access to the guts of the device.

Huawei is said to be launching their own version later this year, but we already know its phone puts the fragile folding screen on the outside, which is a non-starter for many users already. Given that these phones need to use flexible plastic instead of glass, the chances of screen damage to an exterior display are quite high, assuming Huawei can solve every other problem that clearly stymied Samsung. Gartner expects the foldable phone market to hit 30 million units by 2023, which, whoop-de-doo. That’s not a mass market product.

“We expect that users will use a foldable phone as they do their regular smartphone, picking it up hundreds of times a day, unfolding it sporadically and typing on its plastic screen, which may scratch quickly depending on the way it folds,” said Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner. “Through the next five years, we expect foldable phones to remain a niche product due to several manufacturing challenges. In addition to the surface of the screen, the price is a barrier despite we expect to decline with time. Currently priced at $2,000, foldable phones present too many trade-offs, even for many early technology adopters.”

I see no reason to be that optimistic. I’m not going to say that foldable phones can’t happen — we’ve seen long, difficult slogs come to market before, including OLEDs (now comfortably established in the high-end TV market) and EUV (which has moved from a complete pipe dream to expected volume shipments on 7nm in 2020). But the distinguishing difference between both of these technologies and foldable phones is that it took well over a decade to bring them both to market, at vastly higher costs than originally anticipated and substantially higher difficulty. Samsung isn’t going to roll out a solution to the Galaxy Fold’s problems in the next couple of weeks. If Samsung had only needed a couple of weeks to solve the problems with the Galaxy Fold, it never would’ve almost shipped the phone to start with.

Maybe these issues can be solved, but they aren’t going to be solved quickly. The reason so many manufacturers are fixated on them is simple: Manufacturers love a hardware-engineered reason to push customers towards buying phones, and right now, foldable phones are the best idea anyone has for doing that. Wearables have not become the Next Big Thing. Smartphone upgrades are falling year-on-year as more people hang on to devices. Foldable phones looked to be the next proven method of rejuvenating sales, but it’s a mirage. It’s going to be a long time before this hardware is affordable, robust, and ready for regular use.

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