Is it a phone? Is it a tablet? Actually, it’s both. It’s a folding phone – and it’s this year’s big handset trend. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, Huawei’s Mate X and Motorola’s re-booted Razr are setting the pace. Will they succeed?
On November 13, Motorola will host a launch party in LA for a new phone. It says the event will unveil a product that is ‘an original unlike any other’.
Really? If the inside gossip is to be believed, the new phone will be the Razr.
Not exactly ‘original’. Moto launched its first Razr 15 years ago.
So why bring it back now?
Well, there’s a simple answer. After years of stagnant innovation in handset design, something different has emerged: the folding phone.
Samsung, Huawei and others are all experimenting with the new form factor, which promises to double the size of the phone screen and bring in many new types of user interface.
Folding phones might be the next big thing. Or they might not. But if they do take off, there is no bigger ‘bendy’ brand than the Razr.
Clearly, Motorola can’t afford to miss this party. Hence the re-boot.
By now, younger readers might be confused. After all, the Razr was launched in 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg was still preparing to launch Facebook from his college bedroom, and Billie Eilish was about to celebrate her third birthday.
But older readers will remember that, in its time, there was no phone to match the Razr.
The handset was released before smartphones changed the market forever. In 2004, people used their devices for talking and texting and taking lo-res photos. There were no apps and there was hardly any mobile internet.
So there was more focus on how phones looked than what they did. And Razr looked great. It was one of the thinnest phones of the time and it had a cool precision-cut keypad in gunmetal grey.
The Razr arrived at a moment of ‘peak clamshell’. It had a hinge at the top, so it opened up like a clam, and snapped shut with a satisfying click. The top phones of the era all had this ‘flip’ form factor.
And Razr was the champion. In four years, it sold more than 130 million units.
Now, 15 years later, the flip design is back. Only this time it’s called the folding phone.
Already, there are plenty of Razr mock-ups and concept designs viewable on YouTube.
The handset geeks seem pretty excited about it. The big question for Moto is whether anyone else is.
Let’s track back and review how the folding phone went from rumour to reality.
Throughout 2018, there were whispers that the big handset makers were working on folding prototypes. They needed to do something radical to reignite the market. Since the first iPhone dropped in 2007, all handsets had begun to look the same: black rectangles with a touchscreen UI. There was nothing else.
This lack of innovation – and the improving quality of mid-tier phones – slowed down sales. Today, people are keeping their devices for longer rather than buying upgrades.
Can the folding phone get people excited again?
The concept does have some obvious advantages. It doubles the size of the average phone screen, which is great for gaming or watching videos.
It also promises to make users more productive. The new devices all offer a ‘multi-active window’ feature. It is, therefore, possible to have many apps open at the same time and to multi-task between them on one large display.
At the industry’s big expo, Mobile World Congress, the folding phone rumours proved true. Samsung and Huawei unveiled their own models. The Samsung Galaxy Fold opened like a book with the screen on the inside, while the Huawei Mate X featured the display on the outside.
Reviewers were not kind. They criticised the visible crease where the phones opened out and complained about particles and dust getting stuck under the displays.
Inevitably, both Samsung and Huawei pushed back their launch dates. The Galaxy Fold was supposed to ship on April 25 at $2,000. Instead, it launched in early October.
Meanwhile, the Huawei Mate X (at time of writing) is still not available – though it should be out soon.
Recently, other phone makers have joined the party.
Just weeks ago, Microsoft surprised everyone with a preview of the Surface Duo, an Android smartphone featuring a pair of 5.6-inch displays that can rotate 360 degrees. It should be available in 2020.
Xiaomi, Oppo, ZTE and others are all rumoured to be working on their own designs too.
It’s also significant that Google is taking the folding phone pretty seriously. It issued guidelines for developers on how to incorporate the concept into their apps as part of its Android 10 specifications.
Google said it wants to help Android developers “to take advantage of this new form factor with as little work as necessary.”
That’s great news – but only if the folding phone concept takes off. This is far from certain. Previous attempts to innovate on smartphone design – think of curved screens, 3D and modular – have all failed.
Will the folding phone join these experiments in the ‘where are they now’ category? In 2020, we will find out if the future is bendy.