Though the leaves may not have started changing color, there’s another sure sign that we’ve entered fall: the barrage of smartphone and other personal device announcements from major manufacturers around the world. Technically, it started in early August at Samsung’s Unpacked event in New York, where they unveiled their Note 10 line of smartphones. The bulk of the announcements, however, are happening in September, most notably Apple’s iPhone 11 line. Looking ahead, the announcements should extend at least until October, given Google’s own pre-announcement of the Pixel 4.
The most recent phone announcement isn’t actually a new one—it’s the relaunch of the Samsung Galaxy Fold with a hardened, re-engineered design. The original Galaxy Fold never shipped to the public because of a number of serious issues with the foldable display that popped up with early reviews of the first units. Though it was clearly a PR disaster for the company, to their credit, they made the difficult decision to delay the product, make the necessary changes, and are now re-releasing it.
I was fortunate enough to receive a review unit of the first edition and, as a long-time fan of the concept of foldable displays, was pleased to discover that in real-world usage, working with a smartphone-sized foldable device truly is a game-changing experience. I also had absolutely zero problems with the unit I received, so was very disappointed to have to return it. Happily, I now have the revised version of the Fold and while it’s obviously too early to say anything about long-term durability, it’s clear that the new Fold design is better conceived and feels more rugged than the original, particularly the redesigned hinge.
Samsung has been very careful this time around to warn people to be cautious with the device and frankly, the early problems with the first generation will probably serve as a good warning to potential customers that they need to treat the Fold a bit more gingerly than they do a typical smartphone. Now, we can certainly argue whether a nearly $2,000 smartphone ought to be this delicate, but the re-release of the Fold says a number of things about the state of foldable technology in general.
First, the plastic material currently used to make foldable displays is still not anywhere close to the level of scratch resistance that glass is. Companies like Corning and other display component manufacturers are working to develop more hardened foldable displays, but if you’re eager to embrace the future now with a foldable device, current material science is going to limit devices to softer, more sensitive screens. An important implication of this is that Samsung made the correct decision in choosing to go with a fold-in design on the Galaxy Fold. Fold-out designs like the Huawei Mate X and the Royole FlexPai aren’t likely to survive more than a few months of regular usage. (Unfortunately for Huawei, that’s the least of their concerns as the lack of Google Services on any of their new devices—including Mate 30 and Mate X—is going to severely handicap their opportunities outside of China.)
Second, we need to think differently about the inevitable tradeoffs between functionality and ruggedness on these new devices. While even the revised design might not be able withstand running an X-Acto blade across the screen or dropping sand into it—though let’s be honest, who’s going to do that to a nearly $2,000 smartphone—as long as the devices prove to be functional over an extended period of regular usage, that will keep most all potential customers happy. The key point to remember is that people who want a radical, cutting-edge device like Fold are interested in it because of the unique experiences it can enable. Having started using it again, I’m still excited at how incredibly useful it is and how innovative it feels to open the device and start using a tablet-sized screen on a phone-sized device. Simple perhaps, but still very cool. In fact, given all the challenges that the initial device faced, it’s pretty amazing that so many people are still interested in the new Galaxy Fold. Clearly, the lure of foldability is still quite strong.
Plus, Samsung themselves has acknowledged the potential challenges the device faces and added two additional services to ward off concerns people may have. First, they’re providing a special concierge level service for Galaxy Fold owners that gives them access to a set of dedicated support personnel who can walk people through any types of questions they have with the phone—a nice touch for an expensive device. Second, the company is offering to replace any potentially damaged screens for $149 for the first year of ownership. While that’s not cheap, it’s certainly appears to be a lot less expensive than what it will cost Samsung to have to perform that repair.
Finally, I believe the official relaunch of the Fold will mark the beginning of a wide range of commercially available products with foldable displays and start to get people thinking about the creative new form factors that these screens enable. Lenovo, for example, has previewed their ThinkPad foldable PC, which is expected to ship around this time next year—showing that foldable screens won’t just be limited to phone-size devices.
There’s no question that the Galaxy Fold is not yet a mainstream device, but it’s equally clear to me that people who want cutting edge device experiences will be drawn to it. I, for one, am eager to continue my explorations.