Why foldable smartphones are more fad than forever devices

The smartphone industry loves peddling gimmicks to try and woo users away from their current devices. Will foldable phones do the trick?

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Image: TechRepublic

gimmick/ˈɡimik/noun

A trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.

I've been a part of many industries and, without fail, each industry eventually resorts to gimmicks to sell a product. In some instances, the gimmick convinces consumers that the new product and is the must-have of the industry.

SEE: BYOD (bring-your-own-device) policy (Tech Pro Research)

Consider the world of mountain biking. For years, mountain bikes rolled on 26-inch wheels. Then, someone decided those wheels needed to be 29 inches. The 29-inch wheel actually made a lot of sense as it rolled over various terrain more efficiently and smoothly than the 26-inch wheel did. But then another company decided that the wheel size needed to be 27.5 inches. In each iteration, new bikes were built around these sizes with the idea that consumers would think a new size (and a new bike) was the latest a must-have.

The smartphone industry is no stranger to such snake-oil salesmanship. We've seen pop-up selfie cameras, Samsung Air View, built-in projectors, the HTC kickstand, the Amazon Fire Phone, the Ubuntu Phone, LG Modules, smart scroll, Alcatel disco lights, Blackberry Storm, Samsung edge display, KnockOn Password, HTC U11, and Pixel squeezable sides.

The point being, the smartphone industry is keen on bringing to light a plethora of gimmicks to try and woo users away from their current devices.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

The possibilities

The latest gimmick? Foldable phones. On paper, or at least in the imagination, this idea sounds incredible. Or, to be honest, what truly sounds incredible are the possibilities that could come from foldable phones. Imagine if every foldable phone serves as nothing more than a concept idea brought to life to show what the industry is capable of producing. If you look at it from that perspective, the foldable phone might be the perfect bridge to a next-gen device.

It seems, however, the industry isn't treating the foldable phone as such. Instead, the industry is treating these new gadgets in a similar fashion to the bike industry and its 27.5-inch wheels. In other words, this is a must-have.

Do you? Do you really?

If your answer is a resounding "yes," let me posit something.

The Achilles' heel

Grab the nearest book. Open it a few times and then look at that book's spine. What do you see? If the book was opened and closed enough times, chances are you'll see creases in the book's spine. You can do the same thing to a sheet of plastic. Bend it enough (you don't even need to fold it in half) and eventually a nasty crease will appear on an otherwise unblemished surface.

Back in the early '90s, I owned a wallet, which included a clear vinyl outer casing so that you could place your ID inside and not have to open the wallet to flash your ID. After a few months of usage, the otherwise clear outer casing acquired a rather unsightly vertical stripe in the vinyl from opening and closing.

With that in mind, what do you think will happen to those foldable phones over time? After opening and closing them enough (just like the wallet), it will crease. Period. Now, imagine using your smartphone with a vertical crease down the center? Not only would it be an eyesore, but if the crease is bad enough it could prevent you from seeing content, or (even worse) render that portion of your touchscreen unresponsive to touch. Try to swipe left or right across that crease, and the gesture could fail all because you used the device according to its design and purpose.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (TechRepublic download)

But ... but ... but ...

You're probably saying to yourself, "But it looks so cool when online!" Of course, it does. It's all fine and good when you see those perfectly un-creased displays at trade shows, unboxing videos, etc. Those devices have not been opened and closed throughout the day to show wear and tear. And the day you purchase your first foldable phone, the screen will be a real show stopper for you and your friends.

Give it a week (or a month, or a few months), and the screen will no longer impress. If you're like me, the noticeable crease will have you either:

  • Regretting the purchase.
  • Never opening the device, to keep that crease out of sight.

And yet, the mobile industry is going out of its way to convince you that the foldable phone is the next iteration smartphone you need.

Don't fall for it—unless the industry creates some from-the-future, transparent aluminum-like product (Hello, computer). Is that possible? I doubt it. But this industry has created some fairly amazing products (some of which many of us never thought possible).

Bottom line: You bend a foldable material enough, it eventually leaves a mark. The only way around it is to not open the foldable phone. That's like having a Pixel 3 and not using the camera, or a Samsung Galaxy 10 and using Bixby over Google Assistant, or having Zukerberg's personal phone number and never calling him to complain about Facebook privacy.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.