Cell phones have come on a long way since the first one came to market in 1983.   It was the Motorola DynaTAC 800x and cost $4000!   It was huge, heavy and cumbersome, and the battery only lasted around 30 minutes!

Today, we take smartphones for granted.   Having the ability to stay in contact, wherever you are, and also connect to the vast information repository of the Internet is now considered a part of everyday life.

In recent years, smartphones have evolved into a single piece of glass, with little to distinguish between models and manufacturers.  These sleek gadgets have dropped traditional buttons in favour of new technologies such as under screen fingerprint readers and facial recognition.   Rumours are that we’ll soon be able to use gestures to control these devices without actually having to even touch them.   Imagine just “waving away” a call from a scammer – that will be strangely satisfying!

This minimalistic design has led to a stagnation in the design of smart phones.  They all look the same!   New models have new features, run faster, have better cameras etc. but place them side by side on a table and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference.

This is about to change however, with the announcement of “foldable phones”!

There’s a yearly show in Barcelona called Mobile World Congress (or MWC for short).   In my past I used to work for a start-up company developing advanced new cellular technologies, and I had the privilege of attending this show a couple of times.  The scale of it is quite breathtaking.  Every year there are over 100,000 attendees, all looking for the latest trend and breakthrough technology.   This year, two manufacturers announced that they were finally bringing foldable smartphones to the market.

I say finally, as foldable screens have been demonstrated and discussed for years.   The introduction of OLED display technologies meant that screens that could roll up and be “folded” could finally be manufactured.   When I say “fold” – it’s more “bend” as you can’t fold them as flat as for say a piece of paper.   Samsung is the first company to be able to manufacture these screens reliably and at scale, and they were one of the companies to announce an upcoming smart phone using the technology this year.

The second company was Huawei (pronounced Waaa Waay), a Chinese multinational company that you may have heard of in the news recently.  Huawei has strong links to the Chinese communist government and as such has resulted in bans of their technology around the world due to concerns over hacks/spying/copyright infringement.  However, I’ll leave that for another article and instead focus on their entrance into the foldable market.

Both manufacturers are using the same technology but have chosen very different approaches on how use it.

But firstly, why would you want a foldable phone?   Well, the idea is that you carry around a normal “phone sized” device which unfolds into a “tablet sized” device when you want a bigger screen.   It’s like having the best of both worlds – a big screen and a small device.

“Small” however is a bit of a stretch, as these devices are currently quite thick.   Imagine, gluing two traditional smart phones together that hinge along one of the long sides.   When folded up, you end up with a phone twice the thickness of what you’re currently used to.

Samsung’s approach is to have two screens.  A small screen on the front of the phone, and a large one on the inside that opens up like a book.

Huawei on the other hand, has a single large screen that covers the front and back of the phone.   Imagine the screen to be like the cover on a hardback book.  If you open the book, the cover becomes one large screen.

Samsung’s design has the advantage that the foldable screen is inside the phone and protected when it’s in your pocket.   This is important as these new screens may be prone to damage.  They can’t have a protective glass covering like traditional phones, as glass doesn’t bend well!

However, the internal screen, along with the small external one, leads to a particularly thick design.   It looks odd too – as the external screen is pretty small, leading to huge bezels around it.  It’s only when you unfold it that you understand the trade-offs in design.

The Huawei phone looks far more like a traditional phone when folded.  It’s also more seamless when unfolding, as the screen just becomes larger.   With the Samsung phone, the apps on the small screen, have to switch to the larger screen on the other side of the phone.   This is something Google is reportedly working on for the next version of Android, but for now appears quite “clunky”.

How about cost?  Well I hope you’re sitting down.   The Samsung Galaxy Fold will be $1980 (USD) and the Huawei Mate X will be $2600 (USD).

These devices aren’t for everyone, and I’d advise you to avoid them!   Not only because of the cost, but we also don’t know how well they’ll stand up to everyday use.   How easily will the screens scratch?  Will the hinges break down over time?  Will the screens break along the fold?

Only time will tell.  It’s exciting to see new phone designs though, and I’m even more excited to see how foldable phones develop and evolve over the coming years!