Once again, the tantalizing prospect of folding phones that turn into tablets has been wafted in front of us by Samsung executives. The Verge has DJ Koh, CEO of Samsung’s mobile division, suggesting that they are working to deliver a tablet that folds into a phone and can fit into a pocket. What he did not provide is any kind of timeframe for such a device.
“When we deliver a foldable phone, it has to be really meaningful to our customer,” Koh told CNET yesterday, “If the user experience is not up to my standard, I don’t want to deliver those kind of products.” Although he expected the hybrid device to initially find a niche market, he said that he believed it would expand, and that “we do need a foldable phone.”
Note that he is not talking about any breakthroughs or imminent releases. Samsung is still in the same research and development phase that they have been in for years. This idea has been floated every year — with hints of a possible release the following year. But the technology simply has not caught up with the vision.
There have been cringe-worthy concept videos and unappealing prototypes. But so far, there has been little reason to believe that such a device is on the immediate horizon.
Samsung is not the only company working on a foldable phone. Huawei is making noises about releasing a folding tablet before Samsung does. They have even demonstrated prototypes at trade shows. Lenovo and Xiaomi are also in the race. But it is not clear that any company has solved the numerous challenges posed by such a device.
These early displays are plastic, which is highly prone to scratching. They will be thick when used as a phone, with a minimum of twice the dimensional thickness of tablet mode. If they don’t fold perfectly flat, that thickness could be a little more substantial. There is also the question of finding room for a sufficiently large battery.
Beyond the hardware, the bigger challenge is software. These devices will have to modify Android to smoothly switch between modes. None of the companies in question are best known for their software prowess, primarily being regarded as hardware focused operations.
Once the product is ready, there is a matter of the market. Apple has no problem selling both high end smartphones and tablets. Android manufacturers have not had that luxury. It is not clear that Android users are clamoring for tablet experiences from a phone.
These new products will add a lot of cost and complexity, something that average users often tend to avoid when possible. In geek culture, foldable phones represent something exciting and futuristic. But everything that we have seen so far suggests that we are still not particularly close to launch. Perhaps 2019 will tell a different story for consumers looking to add a foldable phone to their technological holdings.