Last time I was excited about a folding phone, it was a Motorola Razr. It felt like the future. It had a big screen. You shut it with a satisfying snap. And it was perfectly pocketable. Alas, the actual future turned up a few years later in the shape of the iPhone, rendering obsolete everything that came before.
Since then, the industry has refined smartphones to the brink of nothingness, fashioning them into increasingly nondescript rounded rectangles. Devoid of character, these charmless blocks control our lives, and make cartoonists’ lives hell, because so many activities – listening to music; reading a book; watching TV; shopping; calling someone – now look identical.
Everyone’s searching for the next step. Those at tech’s cutting edge – and the extreme edge of what they’re willing to pay for a phone – swear folding phones are it. But rather than echo the Razr, folding phones start out as a chunky version of the aforementioned nondescript rounded rectangle. And they unfold into… larger and squarish nondescript rounded rectangles.
There are now enough of these devices that my colleagues here at Stuff feel duty bound to compile a list of the best foldable phones. And news – well, rumours – arrived this week that Google is totally probably definitely maybe likely to release the long-awaited Google Pixel Fold early next year. Possibly. So there will be another high-end folding phone. At least if YouTuber Jon Prosser and his gossip gong are to be believed.
I should be happy about this. After all, I recently argued the next iPhone I wanted was one that would make all my other devices obsolete. Folding phones already have an expansive tablet-like display mode. And if Android manufacturers integrated desktop modes as well, they’d work like a PC when plugged into a display. (They’re certainly powerful enough). I’m a fan of Google hardware too, because it comes with Google software, bereft of the crud glued to much else Android. So: yay?
Not really. I’m unconvinced and increasingly wonder if we’ll in ten years look back at fold-o-phones with the same wide-eyed “what were they thinking?” expression we today reserve for a great deal of what Nokia once churned out. This will be down to a number of reasons.
Folding phones are ludicrously expensive, for a start. (The Google Pixel Fold is predicted to start at $1799.) They’ve historically been heavier and yet more fragile than non-folding equivalents, with the screen being particularly vulnerable. And the screen has a crease. Folks with folding phones tell me they hardly notice the crease after a while. But I recall an iPhone I once owned had a tiny scratch that was barely perceptible to a fingernail – and that drove me to distraction. A vertical equivalent down the entire screen would not be a good thing. Also, Google’s upcoming blower is reportedly annoyingly heavy.
Lastly, I remain sceptical Google cares enough about tablet apps to make a meaningful difference in this space. And that’s what a folding phone is when unfolded: a tablet. One with a weird aspect ratio, but still a tablet. If there aren’t many great tablet apps for it, what’s the point? It’s not like it’ll be a thrill to watch TV on a square.
So I’m not sure what’s next for phones nor what should be. And as someone who has bad form in making predictions – I once suggested the original iPod would be a horrible failure – I won’t make one here. What I will say is it feels oddly lacking in imagination to argue the next big thing is a mediocre tablet experience you can fold in half to leave yourself lugging an overweight and bulky phone.
Feel free to pop back in a decade and tell me whether I was right or not.