How do folding phones adapt to users, and vice versa?

Oblong CEO John Underkoffler discusses the burgeoning folding phone trend, how users will take advantage of the form factor, and how cases would work on a folding phone.

How do folding phones adapt to users, and vice versa?

TechRepublic's James Sanders spoke with Oblong Industries CEO John Underkoffler about the burgeoning folding phone trend, how users will take advantage of the form factor, and how cases would work on a folding phone. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

James Sanders: I'm here with John Underkoffler of Oblong Industries. 2019 is widely expected to be the year of folding phones as rumors indicate Motorola, Samsung and Xiaomi are preparing models with foldable strains. In terms of user experience, what's the make or break factor for folding phones?

John Underkoffler: I think there're actually two make or break factors and one is physical and the other has to do with the pixels in a sense. The physical one is ergonomic. And this may sound a little weird, but for me it comes down to can you open the thing with one hand? Does it have a really kind of fantastic feel as you open it? I mean, of course the precedent here is anyone having been down to the planet opening their Star Trek flip phone and there should be that similar kind of gestural feel, a similar kind of satisfying ergonomics to the simple motion of getting the phone to open into a usable mode. The other make or break factor as far as I'm concerned is of course the experience or the experiences. We know that what's going to make these valuable in a raw sense is the fact that when they're unfolded, there's more display area that opens up the kind of field for the kinds of applications and the kinds of work and information that you can undertake and understand in the context of a folding phone.

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But what those are is going to make all the difference and how software designers decide to use that larger space will make really all the difference. If it's simply a matter of scaling up existing apps to fit into a bigger screen, I don't think anyone has got much of anything to sell.

James Sanders: Samsung's prototype shows only one hinge, meaning one flex point, making it more of a brochure. Leaks of a Xiaomi prototype show a two fold pamphlet design. How will increased fold points impact that user experience? And how are more complex designs likely to be more fragile?

John Underkoffler: Well, there's the physical aspect is having two hinges mean that the thing can get smaller, probably not, but it does mean is that it'll likely be able to get bigger. In a way, I feel like the folds and the introduction of insides and outsides where historically, of course the smartphone is only ever had an outside, actually introduces the opportunity for new kinds of designs and new user interactions. Like for example, is there a thing you can do? Is there a new swipe that actually takes information you were looking at on the display, on the outside of the phone and kind of swirls it around to the inside. And when you have two hinges or two fold points instead of one, maybe there's literally a new kind of fold semantics that extends our UI language for using smartphones. Maybe the act of folding and unfolding itself is part of the interface instead of simply part of the physicality of getting the phone ready to use. I think that would be really significant. I'd love to work on it.

James Sanders: Because of the emotional connection that people have with their phones, everyone I know has a case on their phone. How are you going to do that with a folding phone and without a case? How is it going to be that these aren't just scratched the day after they're taken out of the box?

John Underkoffler: Yeah, the case issue is a really good one. I think that historically smartphone manufacturers have gotten away without having to adequately, let's say physically safe guard the devices that they sell you using the devices that they sell you, which is why there's such a burgeoning market for cases. You get your new pixel or whatever phone it is and it's unbelievably elegant and slender, and then you've got to put it in the case. As you pointed out, the case isn't really an option or as easily an option in the new foldable phone world. Although I guess I'm driven to recognize that if you buy nice used books. Books, some people have heard of them. Sometimes the original book's cover will come in a kind of foldable, mylar encasement that's sturdy and not unattractive and keeps the thing safe. So maybe there's something that can come along like that.

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However, I really feel as if the onus is now on the smartphone manufacturer itself to make sure that the device is sturdy in a way that anticipates that, "Yes, of course it's going to fall out of your pocket or your shirt pocket or your pocket book." Or wherever it's going to fall from. There's physical hazard to being in the world and the phones are not immune and the phone itself should anticipate that.

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