Last year’s rumours were true: The smartphone that will dominate 2019 is the folding smartphone. Already, we’ve seen Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X released earlier this year, and more recently, Microsoft announced the Surface Duo that’s due late 2020. The future of dual screens is here, but why are people clamouring all over these first-generation gadgets?

If you take a look at a brief timeline of mobile phones throughout history, it started off big and bulky. Phones then started getting smaller, culminating in the ultimate nostalgia-inducer, the Nokia 3310. But when the iPhone made its debut in 2007, screen sizes started getting bigger inch by inch, year on year – the original iPhone had a 3.5 inch display, while the current iPhone 11 Pro Max boasts a 6.5 inch display.

With the foldable smartphone joining the fray, we’re returning back to the age of bulky devices but with portability in mind. Think of it as a resurgence of the flip phone, only bigger. But does that necessarily mean that its better?

Ushering in the era of dual screens

It’s no secret and hardly a surprise that people today are more connected than ever. When was the last time you actually put down your phone for a day and lazed off the grid? It has probably been awhile, and we’re not blaming anyone. Our lives are partially lived on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the plethora of messaging apps we use daily to communicate instantly.

But it’s human nature to want more. You want to reply to your significant other while watching a YouTube video, or look up flight tickets while getting inspiration from Instagram. A dual-screen phone allows for more flexible multi-tasking, even though most modern smartphones already support that in one way or another. During the keynote announcement for Microsoft’s Surface Duo, chief product officer Panos Panay asserted that the Duo (and largely the trend of dual-screen devices) will increase your productivity in spades. After all, at their core are a suite of apps like Outlook, Word, and Excel that thrive on multitasking.

A demand for innovation

Remember when the annual keynotes from major smartphone manufacturers will have tech blogs frothing at their mouths? We’re way past those times now, as the smartphone industry has sort of hit a plateau. Apple’s Face ID was introduced more than two years ago, Samsung’s AMOLED displays have been around for years, and Google Assistant is now as ubiquitous as Amazon’s Alexa. Fledgling technologies like the under-screen fingerprint sensors and cameras that flip up from the back are still in the process of being refined, and until their mass adoption can only be seen as novelty features. Excitement and innovation are hardly words used to describe the announcements of smartphones today.

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The Huawei Mate X sports a large 8-inch screen when opened fully. (Photo: Huawei)

Like we’ve mentioned earlier, people want more, and a folding, dual-screen smartphone is something fresh and exciting that can shake up the industry. Make no mistake, a foldable smartphone is more than just sticking two displays together with a hinge in between. Samsung’s first attempt at the Galaxy Fold caught flack when the screens of multiple review units started breaking after days of normal use. They had to recall and delay the launch of the phone, which was a hit to them at at that time. But if the numbers are anything to go by – its September launch in Singapore sold out fully on the first day – people are willing to take a bet on the first generation of this new technology.

Banking on apps

Besides offering more screen space (and a bigger battery), how can a foldable smartphone stand out and warrant its hefty price tag? The key lies not in the hardware, but the software. More specifically, the App Store.

With our current smartphones, the aspect ratios both vertical and horizontal are pretty standard. Once more foldable smartphones start popping up, developers have to optimise their apps even more, as users would like the option to switch between having it on one screen, on both screens, or on its side like a tablet.

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Apps will make or break the foldable smartphone. (Photo: Microsoft)

Google’s Android ecosystem has already been supporting foldable screens since last year, but there is still work to be done. Part of the reason why Huawei delayed the launch of their Mate X is to allow developers more time to optimise their apps. Samsung too, has been working closely with developers to ensure that users will still have a rich and fluid experience with their apps. In fact, they are encouraging users to try utilising three apps simultaneously across the wide screen of the Galaxy Fold. Some of the most popular apps like Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, VSCO, and Amazon Prime Video are already being optimised for its big screen according to Samsung.

Should you get one?

We understand the temptation to just walk into the nearest Samsung store and handing over your credit card for the latest piece of technology. But that’s just it: Samsung is the only one currently selling the foldable smartphone. Huawei’s Mate X still isn’t available yet, and Microsoft’s Surface Duo will only drop in stores late next year.

If you really wanted to, we’d say go for it, make that appointment with Samsung and get your new toy. But if you just upgraded to the latest smartphone in your preferred ecosystem, perhaps a little patience will go a long way. Other than a more elegant multitasking experience, there is nothing your current phone cannot already do.

Plus, these devices are now still in their infantile stages. Waiting a generation or two will only mean you get a smoother, more refined device that won’t have the same issues as the current iterations.

So while 2019 might be known as the year that the foldable smartphones debuted, we think 2020 will be the peak year of foldables and flexibility.

Josiah Neo
Writer
Josiah Neo is a tech writer who contributes occasionally to the fashion, travel, and culture beats. When he’s not busy keeping up with the keynotes, he’s probably stuffing his face with the best Melbournian donuts (at Shortstop, BTW) or watching his favourite esports team, the Los Angeles Valiant, pummel their opponents into oblivion.