- In recent years, new smartphones from companies like Apple and Samsung have seemed like iterative improvements rather than game-changing releases.
- But the rise of foldable phones like the new MotorolaRazr and the Samsung Galaxy Fold proves that major smartphone brands are thinking about what’s next for the mobile devices we use every day.
- These new devices are emerging as the smartphone industry suffers from people holding on to their phones for longer.
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When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone more than 10 years ago, he famously showcased its ability to function as three devices in one: a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator.
But the breakthroughs in the years following the iPhone’s debut were almost as impactful: the launch of the App Store in 2008, the emergence of devices with larger screens after Samsung’s first Galaxy Note in 2011, the rise of touchless voice controls with the launch of Siri in 2011 and the original Moto X in 2013, and the Touch ID home button on the iPhone 5S that made passcodes feel obsolete in 2013.
But it’s become increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to pinpoint new smartphones that have had a similar effect. New models introduced in recent years by the industry’s biggest players, such as Apple and Samsung, have felt iterative more than revolutionary.
For example, the biggest differences between the flagship iPhone 11 Pro that Apple launched in September and 2018’s iPhone XS are the 11 Pro’s new triple-lens camera that’s better at taking photos in the dark, its improved water resistance, and its more sophisticated processor – improvements that are appreciated but certainly don’t fundamentally change how smartphones are used.
The same can be said for Samsung’s new Galaxy S10, which offers a superior screen that the company says has more accurate colour representation than its predecessor, along with a refreshed design and a better camera.
But as the smartphone has matured, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the world’s biggest mobile-device makers are thinking about what’s next. Motorola’s latest smartphone, a revival of the popular Razr flip phone from the early 2000s, is the most recent example.
The 2019 Razr features a 6.2-inch screen with a flexible build that enables it to fold in half, just like the flip phone you probably remember using around the year 2005. That means you can snap it shut when you’re finished with a phone call, just like in the old days.
But instead of buttons on a keypad, a touchscreen stretches across the inside of the Razr, just like any other modern smartphone. When it’s closed, it has a 2.7-inch screen that can display information like the time and notifications.
That convenience and nostalgia will cost you, however, since the phone is priced at $US1,500.
Motorola is far from the only company to experiment with different smartphone form factors.
In February, Samsung announced a foldable phone, the nearly $US2,000 Galaxy Fold, which opens and closes like a book. The Fold features a 7.3-inch tablet-sized display when it’s open and a 4.6-inch display on its front.
Samsung was initially supposed to release the phone in April but pushed back the launch after a few reviewers said the screen broke after just a couple of days of use. The Fold eventually launched in the United States on September 27, but only after Samsung endured criticism that it introduced the phone before it was ready.
Huawei also announced a foldable phone, the Mate X, shortly after Samsung. Unlike Samsung’s phone, the Mate X has a flexible display that wraps around the outside of the device rather than folding inward.
While Huawei’s foldable phone certainly made waves when it was revealed, attention quickly shifted to the tension between the Chinese smartphone giant and the US government. Huawei was placed on a trade blacklist in May that prevents it from working with American companies, meaning the firm is no longer allowed to use Google’s Android operating system.
Aside from these foldable phones, this year’s Mobile World Congress in February also indicated that the smartphone as we know it may change. New unconventional phones that launched under the Energizer and Nokia brands made their debut at the convention, boasting features and form factors that are at least exciting and refreshing, if nothing else.
Avenir Telecom’s Energizer P18K Pop packs a massive 18,000-mAh battery that the company says gives the phone 50 days of battery life when in standby mode, while HMD Global’s Nokia 9 PureView has a staggering five rear cameras.
Whether such devices will ever make it to mainstream status is unclear, but they’re evidence that tech companies are experimenting in an industry that has remained largely stagnant.
Global smartphone shipments declined for seven consecutive quarters before increasing by 0.8% year-over-year in the third quarter of 2019, the International Data Corporation said earlier this month. Part of the reason for the slowing sales is that smartphone owners aren’t upgrading their devices as often as they used to.
That may be because new smartphones simply aren’t as exciting as they used to be. A survey conducted by the UBS Evidence Lab, the results of which were published in a May note by a team of analysts led by David Mulholland, found that 12-month purchase intent for prospective smartphone shoppers had decreased to 41% from 42% year-over-year.
But the advent of technologies like foldable phones and support for 5G networks could drive growth next year, the survey found.
“We believe that consumers will need to see real value and attraction in foldable form factors or from 5G in order to be willing to see further increases in smartphone average selling prices,” the note read.
That’s not necessarily to say these new offbeat devices will play a role in boosting industry sales. The prices alone of devices like the Galaxy Fold and the new Motorola Razr will probably prevent them from being blockbuster hits.
And there’s no telling whether these foldable form factors will represent the next major evolution of the smartphone. After all, the phones with retractable keyboards that dominated in the early 2000s, like the T-Mobile Sidekick, don’t look anything like the sleek rectangular touchscreen smartphones we use today. But the Sidekick and others set the stage for an era in which we use our phones for much more than just texting.
These new foldable devices may similarly lay the foundation for whatever comes next. While what exactly that entails remains unclear, one thing is for sure: These devices are no longer just prototypes or concepts – they’re on the horizon.