What Folding Phones Say About State of SmartPhones

Huawei Mate.

Over the past few weeks, the world has been talking about folding smartphones. Bigger screens, thicker devices, and $2,000 price tags have not deterred the excitement around these new devices. There are some skeptics, but they are largely drowned out by enthusiasm like that found in The Verge, which already wonders if we will someday “talk of single-sided smartphones in the same nostalgic way we now speak of devices with external antennas, monochrome screens, and fixed-focus lenses.”

As it happens, nostalgia is exactly what I felt when I saw this new generation of smartphones. I was reminded of the first folding device that got me excited about mobile computing: the Blackberry Pager with a full chiclet keyboard and flip-out screen. Then there was Windows CE-powered HP Jornada, which I also loved.

And who could forget the scene in the 1997 thriller, The Saint, when Val Kilmer used his Nokia Communicator to transfer money while hanging out in Moscow? That cinematic moment showed me the way of the future.

Little did I realize how dramatically diminished Nokia’s presence would be in that future. At the dawn of the 3G era, they were the dominant handset maker. But business was becoming increasingly competitive, with upstarts like Samsung and LG eating away at their profits. The world was awash in candy bar-style phones and basic Razr flip phones, and people were getting bored. Needing to sell higher-priced devices with greater margins, Nokia became one of the more daring companies when it came to phone design. They began developing phones that focused on cameras, and others that were all about watching and recording videos.

Remember the Nokia E75? Or the E70 with the flip out keyboard? The Nokia N73 music phone? The N90 video recorder? Today they are forgotten relics on the unending and relentless autobahn of technological progress. Don’t worry if you forgot about them. All these variants of the old 12-button keypad phone were replaced by a brand new design and user interface: the capacitive touch-based iPhone.

The highly focused high-end phones accounted for majority of Nokia’s handset division’s profits, but the 12-button keypad had a vise grip on the company. Despite having touch technology, a web services strategy, and thinking about mobile apps strategically, Nokia would become a footnote in the march of technology. Those who worked for the company blamed scattershot decision-making for its demise. Over a decade ago, when writing about Nokia and what went wrong with the company, I pointed out that the only way to beat a big incumbent was to think different. And that is precisely what Steve Jobs and his team at Apple did, upending the established order.

The iPhone introduced the idea that the smartphone was supposed to be a glass-faced rectangle — no keys, just touch. Since 2007, we have seen only variants of that original idea. Apple has made the screens better, the phones more powerful. The cameras are amazingly improved. The networks are faster and the storage capacity is much higher. The Android universe has been pretty much the same, except larger in terms of devices sold.

Today’s slowing sales for Apple, Samsung, and other smartphone makers remind me of a previous era. We have seen the introduction of luxury high-end phones at exorbitant prices amid declining margins due to brutal price competition before. And these are not the only sources of déjà vu.

The experimentation in handset designs that occurred around the time of 3G networks led to a shift in the form factor of our phones. This then helped the growing popularity of the 4G/LTE networks, which benefited from the app boom. Larger screens and powerful devices made it easy to enjoy over-the-top video, computational photography and social communications, which in turn made a good case for faster 4G networks. We now stand at the cusp of the next generational shift in network capabilities. While it is hard to get a grasp on 5G networks, it is clear that the carriers are going to push this hard. The handset makers will push foldable phones as a panacea.

Admittedly, foldable phones are exciting. You can hear it in the eagerness of the mobile writers. But I confess, I see these as pre-beta devices, which are hardly conducive to productivity and lack elegance. At least, that’s the case right now. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see some magical improvements in these devices over the next two years. Huawei and Samsung will probably make a lot of progress. Apple will sit on the sidelines — and might even run the risk of being Nokia-ed.

At the end of the day, however, these foldable phones are still variants of the rectangular glass that was introduced over a decade ago. If 5G networks have to become a reality, meaning more power, bandwidth and speeds have to be consumed, we should expect the form factors to be redefined away from the glass rectangle. My guess — which you may take with a pinch of salt, as it is a big one — is that we should expect the next form factor to redefine our expectations of what a communications device is supposed to be.

We have gone from voice to app-centric form factors. The next form factor will be multi-modal and very visual. A device that marries a wearable, a pocketable and a hearable could become the catalyst of the next shift. Let’s use Apple as an example. Imagine an Apple Watch, AirPods, and augmented reality (AR) glasses married to a phone serving as an edge server. That could be the next form factor, and who knows if we would even need the intermediate device.

The next form factor will be something that elicits the same emotional reaction that the iPhone’s rectangular screen and touch interface did when it debuted. As soon as we saw it, we all wanted it. Google and Andy Rubin essentially copied it when they made the Android because they wanted to inspire the exact same feeling of attraction. In order to shift from its comfort zone, the world needs a visceral sensory response to something original.

Your guess as to what that will be is as good as mine — and I am always curious to hear how community members are thinking about the future, so please feel free to share it with me. But just as no new handset design could prevent the 12-button keypad from being relegated to the past, I am confident that new versions of our current phones (even ones that fold in thrilling ways) will not be the next form factor.

A letter from Om

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