5G and foldable phones: The promises and problems

TechRepublic's Karen Roby and CNET's Jessica Dolcourt discuss the current and future state of the smartphone industry and the much-anticipated benefits of 5G.

5G and foldable phones: The promises and problems

TechRepublic's Karen Roby caught up with Jessica Dolcourt, a senior producer with CNET, to talk about the smartphone industry and the future of 5G. The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

Karen: The smartphone industry is really in an interesting place. Can you talk about what the state of the industry is right now or maybe that is too broad of a question! 

Jessica: Actually it's a great question because we're in a really exciting place right now for a little while. The last couple of years, we've seen a lot of slowing in the smartphone space. This used to be just rocket growth for a lot of reasons. People are buying smartphones for the first time and also just a much faster turnaround. So whereas you might replace your fridge once every 10 years or your TV once every 5 to 10 years, people are going through their smartphones at a much faster clip. You see generally like 18 months. And you've got all of these programs from the carriers that are also pushing this renewable cycle.

So all of that means that the industry was just taking off. But sales have stalled, and that's across the board. So that's Apple with the iPhone, that's Samsung, you name it. So this is a real problem for the smartphone makers because they're seeing that growth slow. It might mean that people are getting a little bit bored, there haven't been a lot of changes. But there are two big changes in the industry right now, and they both have their promise, and they both have their problems.

So one is going to be foldable phones. The devices that we've seen right now are basically thought of as tablets that open up into a book or a phone that opens up to a book or a tablet shape. But really they could be any design. They could also be sort of like a flip phone. The thing that they all have in common, and the most defining characteristic is that the screens bend. So instead of having two separate screens with a hinge, you have one continuous screen. This is just supposed to be miraculous because it doubles the screen space that you could have in this uninterrupted display where you can play more immersive games, watch things, do all the things that you would normally do on your phone, but it's easier to carry around so you can shove it in your pocket. Because if we all wanted to have a tablet, we would all have tablets. And, yes, it is awkward to talk on the phone like that. So it's a good thing that there are also wireless earbuds and things to handle the actual phone calls if people decide they want to make one.

However, there have been problems with the foldable phones kind of coming to market. Samsung had a major delay.

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Karen: It was a debacle, a pretty ugly situation.

Jessica: It was, but it's not as bad as the Galaxy Note7 disaster because it's not dangerous. What happened was reviewers, including me, got the Galaxy Fold, that's the name of Samsung's device, and we started using it. And some reviewers, not me, experienced problems with the screen. Multiple problems. Different problems from each other. Some were repeated, and some were different. And what this signals, is that there are problems with the screen and it wasn't just user error. It's got this film on it, and you can't always tell. It looks like a regular screen protector or some plastic that was accidentally left on, or it's just like a dust guard. But, if you peel that off, it actually kills the screen. So some people did that, and they weren't supposed to. And in one case there was some debris that got underneath the screen. I think that happened twice. I noticed on my device it was intact by the end of my review period, but it was really easy to get nicks and gouges in the screen even though I was really careful with it. It almost looked like the half-moon of the nail and if you pressed it down, really soft flooring.

Samsung asked for the review units back. And, to be honest, I always had the understanding that they were going to get it back after a 10 day or 2 week period, a short period of time. But it caused this whole scandal. Like, reviewers phones are breaking. To be fair, Samsung never released the phone into the market, but they did delay the start date. When Samsung announced the Galaxy Fold, everybody was excited.

It's something new and something different. This represents potentially a seismic shift in the way that phones are designed. If this is something that turns out to be useful and not just a gimmick, maybe we're going to see a lot more phones like this. A slow transition to be sure but maybe this is sort of the way of phones in the way that we moved from the flip phone to the standard candy bar shape that everybody has now. Back in the day with flip phones, it was probably expected that that's just what you're going to have forever and then it changed.

So change is exciting, but it also has its problems. But for the industry. And not only I think are consumers are cooled by watching these issues and now thinking, I was excited about it, but is this going to happen to my phone? These are potentially expensive devices. The Galaxy Fold was supposed sell for just shy of $2,000. Huawei has a foldable phone too that was going to be even more, the equivalent of $2,600. So you're going to pay all this money and then is your phone going to break? And I think with foldable because it's so about the screen. I mean, the screen matters on your phone anyway, but you use it for other things. But the whole point that this phone even exists or that this design exists is for the screen. So, if there's a problem with that, then people definitely aren't going to want to use it.

But I think what this tells us, and the main issue with the screen is really that its plastic. We don't have foldable glass yet, and that means that the plastic is very soft. The construction is different. This is early days. This was always going to be a beta device. It was always going to be first-generation, almost like a proof of concept. It wasn't really for the public; it's for early adopters or for people who want to make a statement about the kind of devices that they have and show off and like, "Ooh, what do you have?" People definitely looked at it when I had it out in public. A lot of people were asking, hey, is that the new phone?

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But there was definitely interest, and people knew about it. We did some man on the street interviews, and there was a homeless guy who's like, "I know all about this phone." So word really got out. But we're still a few years off from a foldable glass display. And even when that happens, that might also be more fragile. So I think that things are going to shake out when this. When it actually emerges. I think we're still going to get devices. I do. It just may not be quite the way that everybody imagined.

Karen: Just not as earth-shattering of changes and things. I guess we're all kind of always thinking, because we were so conditioned to think, well, next year they're coming out with something new and better and something really eye-catching, and it's kind of just been boring.

Jessica: It's little things with the camera, with the software to power the camera, lots of lenses on the back. Zoom lenses are really in. All of these are really cool, and it takes a lot of brainpower. Companies are working really hard with a lot of really smart people developing all this stuff so that we can take really cool selfies and other things and get really detailed across the street or at monuments that we can't get to. Or somebody on stage and we feel like it's really up close. And really amazing things done with low light photography. These are not things people get really excited about. They just want the phone with a good camera, even though there was so much work that can get into it.

But with a foldable phone, this is something you can actually see, you can feel it. It's tactile. It makes sense to you in a different way. I was really surprised when I held it for the first time that it just was totally different. I just got it, I knew about it, and I saw it. But when you hold it, and you open it, and you close it, it's just, it's visceral, it's physical.

Karen: Switch gears a little bit, 5G. Let's talk about it.

Jessica: Yeah. 5G is the other major change happening to the industry, but this one is happening whether you're going around it's coming.

It's coming to us. 5G is really interesting because it encapsulates so many things. So when we think of 5G, we think of speeds. We think of fast downloads. This is the next-generation technology that's replacing 4G, which is what we have in our phones now, just the way that 4G replaced 3G. So it will make phones potentially exponentially faster in downloading data. So one really good way to understand it is that you can download an entire movie or a season of TV in seconds. And we saw that happen and it's really great. But that's just really the tip of the iceberg.

So in the way that 4G really enabled streaming because it made it was faster to download large amounts of data, large quantities. So streaming became possible with 4G. With 5G it opens up a lot of doors to do a lot of other things on your phone. So one example might be crystal clear video calls that don't lag. That's an easy way to understand that.

Or I saw this really cool demo where while you were watching live TV, you could zoom in on the characters or you could reposition the screen and move the screen. And all that requires data because it's got to fill in the image and that's really hard to do. So imagine that kind of immersion. And, also, think of gaming, AR gaming, real-life gaming. AR takes a tremendous amount of computational resource and imagine doing it live. That's really hard because you have to have the computers in the phone's processing at a very rapid rate. And then you also have to be able to have that data to create and build the world that you see in front of you. And those are the tip of the iceberg. We don't know what we're going to see.

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And then there is a lot of great utility beyond the phone for 5G. One example we always use is remote surgery, or smart cities, or self-driving cars talking to each other to reduce potentially the amount of collisions on the road. And all of that quick data uplink and the bandwidth means that these things can basically talk in real-time, which is not something we have now. So that's going to be really exciting and interesting. And we got to try it out, my CNET colleagues and I in 15 cities and different countries all over the world. These are really early days so we can say that the results have been variable.

So 5G, it helps that there were two different kinds of technologies and approaches. And right now the phones either work with one or they work with the other and they've got chips inside of them that are very first-generation, so they're bulky. The phones are extremely expensive; coverage is really spotty. We've got some really good results that really, I think, get me at least excited about the prospect in terms of download speeds. But these experiences overall haven't been very satisfying, and some of that is to be expected because it's early. 

But I think my main concern is that these phones are going to be really expensive to the consumers. And a less expensive phone, you're going to make the trade-off with maybe the number of cameras you have or some of the other features that are part of the phone. And I think that it could be frustrating if you get really good 5G coverage in a dense urban area, but then you go somewhere else, and you fall back to 4G, and then you've built this expectation of really high speeds. I mean it's like anytime you go through sort of an area of poor signal strength, and you're just like, "Ah."

Karen: I remember the days when it was always like that. So we're getting spoiled.

Jessica: But I think it's going to be exponentially faster. So I think that that disappointment and frustration could also grow along with it. The good news is that the 4G networks are going to improve alongside the 5G networks. So 4G is going to get faster.
I think that the next generation of phones, they're going to have second-generation chips in them. Some of them eventually will be able to switch between these two different approaches to 5G, which will give you better coverage. And the carriers are going to be constantly building out the cities and the parts of cities. Right now it might be a couple of neighborhoods. But then there will be more area, and then there will be different technology once you get to the outskirts. 

So really interesting things going on with 5G and we've just got to watch and wait. But I think that for most people it's kind of like with the foldable phones, the early 5G adopters are people who are adopting for a reason because they really want to do it, I don't think it's a smart time to buy a 5G phone. I think that the carrier is, for them, it's an arms race. They need to be the first one out there and claim that they have the best and the fastest and the most phones and the this and the that. But, at the end of the day, for regular people who are looking to buy a phone, I think it's a smart idea to wait. I think we're going to start seeing a lot more, but wait for the technology to get better, wait for there to be more coverage, wait for some of those prices to come down too.

Karen: Just a little patience, it certainly goes a long way. Well, I like to ask people too, writers especially, what the technology you're the most excited for. A lot of people will say, "Oh, AI for sure. AR." Or wherever kind of their niche is. But clearly, for you, it's 5G.   

Jessica: Yeah, I think so. 5G is such a big one, and we think we know what we're going to get, but I think that we could be surprised as well. And I work with phones every day, so of course, I'm excited about that. But I think for me, I'm really intrigued about the possibilities beyond phones, the factories, the smart cities, telemedicine and what that's going to enable. Things that actually save lives or change lives or change the way that everybody lives. The phone is your computer in your pocket; it is there for you, you use it all the time. It is extremely important. And being connected and being always connected and having that reliable on-demand kind of experience is really important. But I think that 5G has the potential for looking through our rose-colored glasses of changing our society in a really impactful way. And that could include the phones, but there's way more beyond that too. But we don't know. We don't know what some of those challenges are going to be and we won't know them until we're really there.

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