Samsung has been threatening to release a folding phone for the better part of five years, and now it looks like it might actually happen. In an interview with CNBC at the IFA trade show last week, mobile CEO DJ Koh, who has been talking up the company’s folding phone project any chance he gets, all but announced that we’ll get a first look at the new handset before the year is up.
According to CNBC, Koh “hinted that more details of the device could be unveiled this year at the Samsung Developer Conference in November in San Francisco,” but stopped short of divulging when it would actually go on sale. Koh said that the new phone’s development process has “nearly concluded.”
Based on his rather vague comments, it will probably be a preview rather than a full launch, and more than likely it will be branded as a prototype. It might not even have a name. But make no mistake: Samsung is determined to announce the world’s first truly foldable phone for one reason and one reason only: to be first, not because the world needs it. Or even wants it.
Know when to fold ‘em
Koh already told the world last month that Samsung would be launching its folding phone as soon as possible because he “didn’t want to lose the “world’s-first” title. That’s a terrible reason to release anything, but worse when you’re talking about cutting-edge technology that consumers aren’t necessarily clamoring for.
Our phones are already plenty big. Samsung’s own Note 9 is 6.4 inches, Apple’s upcoming iPhone XS is rumored to be 6.5 inches, and the Pixel 3 XL could be 6.7 inches. Since anything bigger will be pushing the limits of what can fit into our pockets, Samsung, Huawei, and others are turning to folding screens to make phones bigger without needing an extra bag to carry them.
That’s a noble mission. We can debate forever whether our phones actually need to get bigger, but if they do, something needs to give. Our bezels can only shrink so much, and eventually a new kind of form factor is going to be needed. And folding seems like the best way to address it. Last year, ZTE tried its hand at a folding phone with the hinge-heavy Axon M, but Samsung’s new phone looks to have an actual screen that folds.
But designing a new product to fulfill a purpose or a need is a lot different than designing one to beat everyone else. Corners are cut, compromises are made, and the end result suffers. Besides, Samsung’s relentless pursuit of “first” has rarely resulted in a product that people want. There was the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which was a clunky, confusing mess; the original Galaxy Note, which was a behemoth of a handset with limited app support; the overpriced and buggy Galaxy S6 Edge with a whole cavalcade of features that didn’t last more than a year. Samsung prides itself on being first, and likes to remind us of that any chance it gets.
If and when Samsung does unveil its first foldable phone later this year, it will get the appropriate headlines and buzz. Then we’ll find out the price, which is likely to be well over $1,000. Then the reviews will roll in and people will decided whether they actually want to be the first person on their block with the first foldable phone. My guess is no.
Being first brings a world of problems
But while first can be a great badge of honor, it can also backfire. Samsung is best known as a premium phone company, but it’s already struggling to sell them this year. Neither the Galaxy S9 nor the Note 9 were buzz-worthy devices, and if Samsung is pushing its folding phone to market just for relevancy, that could be a problem. It’s not just that folding phone tech is bleeding-edge stuff, it’s that there are a lot of opportunities for it to go spectacularly wrong. The questions far outweigh the logistics, and Samsung’s track record with early technology doesn’t necessarily give me hope that it’s solved them all to satisfaction.
In his CNBC interview, Koh said all the right things about the upcoming folding Galaxy phone as he tried to convince us that Samsung has covered its bases:
If the unfolded experience is the same as the tablet, why would they (consumers) buy it? … So every device, every feature, every innovation should have a meaningful message to our end customer. So when the end customer uses it, (they think) ‘Wow, this is the reason Samsung made it.’”
I hope that’s the case. Because right now, it looks like the only reason Samsung made it is because they can.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.
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