Rumors of flexible (or bendy) devices are nothing new, but with curved screens now becoming the norm, it’s the next logical step for some device makers. Most recently, those rumors suggest Samsung could be working towards mass marketing folding or flexible devices in around 2019. There’s just one problem – it’s a form factor that hasn’t ever really worked before.
Consider the foldable options, as that’s the current suggestion. Can you think of any other devices that have used a folding design in the way a phone would work. There’s the Sony Tablet P, a self-explanatory named device that launched in 2011, a full six years ago. It didn’t need a foldable screen, it instead used dual screens and a hinge. Oh, and massive bezels that made the device a little unwieldy to hold and use at the same time, but that wasn’t unusual back in 2011.
Now, Samsung’s touting a virtually bezel-less display on the S8 and S8+, and times have changed. Except that they haven’t, really. According to the most recent purported leaks, a ‘true’ foldable display will be comprised of a single screen that can physically fold up on itself, whereas the rumored handset, only a few thousand of which will reportedly be made, will be a hinged device with two displays.
That sounds both an awful lot like a more modern version of the Tablet P, and reminiscent of a clamshell design, if it folds vertically, rather than horizontally.
The technical ability to make a device that folds (or bends) won’t be the defining factor in its success, however. What will make all the difference is what that extra display enables for the user.
Remember the YotaPhone (and superior YotaPhone 2)? That wasn’t a foldable device, but it has some similarities with foldable and bendable phones of the future, and that’s the rear-facing e-ink screen. It was e-ink so that it didn’t drain your battery unnecessarily, and indeed, it could potentially help you save your battery a little.
That, by any measure, was not a popular device. Nor was the Tablet P. Both were novelties made because it was possible to make them, not because the market was clamoring for them, and that’s not a rare situation for the tech world. We live in a time when people are trying to crowdfund ideas like this. Invention is often not born out of necessity.
That’s not to say that we don’t need folding or bendy phones. Perhaps we do. Perhaps it’s the single greatest innovation to happen to phones since… well, the last one. Perhaps it will have that killer feature or usage case that’ll make total sense.
If it doesn’t, however, that extra screen is going to add weight, drain the battery and potentially open the phone up to twice the potential of getting damaged or scratched. Presumably, at least initially, foldable phones will come at a premium too, so you’ll probably be paying the extra ‘early adopter’ tax.
There’s nothing wrong with clam shell phones, and a single screen that folds in two feels like a more futuristic prospect, but without a genuinely good use for that extra display real-estate, they can only ever exist in the novelty market.
Perhaps as importantly as what they’ll provide to the phone market is what they’ll enable in as-yet unimagined designs for other devices. Samsung’s now established curved-edge smartphones are a product of overcoming some of the challenges in producing bendable panels, and they’re some of the best looking devices available.
In 2017, it looks like the future of flexible phones is still a fair way in the distance.
Would you want a bendy phone? Let us know in the comments below!