I’ve finally figured out why foldable phones actually exist

Ever since the first foldable phones were foisted upon us, I’ve been struggling to understand their purpose.

They’re cool, sure — and technologically speaking, they’re incredibly impressive. But from a practical, ten-fingered human perspective, what benefit do they actually provide? I’ve yet to hear a single unambiguous answer. And that’s to say nothing of all the significant downsides and compromises they require.

At first, I assumed the foldable phone fad was similar to other questionable-benefit smartphone trends of the moment — counterproductive elements like “waterfall displays,” cutouts in the active viewing areas of screens in exchange for smaller borders around said panels, and heck, even 5G — in that it was ultimately conceived as a way to make appliance-like devices seem new, exciting, and meaningfully different from their predecessors (and thus suddenly worth buying at a time when most of us are content to stick with our current phones for increasingly long periods).

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that something even deeper is going on in this domain. Plain and simple, I don’t think device-makers actually want people to buy their current foldable phones, nor do they want tech writers to cover them closely in the way they’d cover a typical high-profile product arrival.

The foldable phones of the moment, I suspect, exist mostly to serve as marketing vehicles for the brands behind ’em. They aren’t about the experiences they provide — which consistently fall short of being commendable, let alone exceptional; they’re about the idea they represent that the company whose name is stamped on the exterior is an innovator, a leader, a hardware authority paving the way to an exciting new mobile-tech future.

And that idea resonates only if you don’t look too closely.

The evidence of this approach is everywhere, once you really start thinking about it. Remember the release of the Motorola Razr? That product was hyped as hard as any cellular apparatus in recent memory. The buildup to its arrival was nothing short of monumental — and then, at what should have been the attention-commanding climax, the phone just sort of…fizzled.

Take the launch event itself, to start: Instead of hosting a high-profile parade timed for maximum visibility, as most phone-makers do with an attention-worthy product, Motorola opted to hold its media moment at 11 p.m. Eastern Time on a Wednesday — without any live streaming, even. It offered attendees limited hands-on time in a noisy environment that, in hindsight, is tough not to suspect was designed at least in part to cover the creaking and croaking we’d hear about when the phone actually hit store shelves three months later.

Speaking of store shelves, if you for some reason wanted to buy the Razr when it technically became available, you were probably out of luck. Stores simply didn’t have ’em, with many retailers reporting they’d never received any units to sell.

Motorola also stayed strangely silent about the numerous issues reviewers uncovered with the phone and went as far as to actively (and, from the sounds of it, somewhat underhandedly) prevent one website from working with iFixIt to investigate the cause of some problems with the device’s display.

Then came the similarly hyped Samsung Galaxy Z Flip — Samsung’s second attempt at a foldable phone and the device built up as being the first foldable worth anyone’s while. Samsung was apparently so eager to have people use the Flip and see what it was really all about that, after weeks of breathless hype and promotion, it made the device available to reviewers for a mere 24-hour period before requiring the units to be returned.

As anyone who’s ever tested gadgets for a living can tell you, that’s extraordinarily atypical. And it’s not nearly enough time to see what a device is actually like to use. (Hmmmm.) The buzz in the writer community also suggested Samsung’s PR squad issued more than a few gentle nudges encouraging sites to focus on the Galaxy S20 flagship with their coverage and not on the far more sensational Flip.

And just like with the Razr, if you actually wanted to buy the Flip once it went up for sale, you were almost certainly out of luck.

Call me crazy, but when you consider all these factors together, it sure seems like the companies making the current crop of foldable phones don’t want anyone to look at ’em for terribly long, let alone go out and buy ’em. They want us all to ooh and ahh over the concepts and the ideas of the technology without closely considering the reality of it. (Former BlackBerry phone producer TCL seems to have found an even more effective way to accomplish that: It’s coming up with eye-catching, coverage-inducing foldable phone forms that don’t even work and aren’t actually for sale.)

Maybe one day, foldable phones will find a reason for existing and a mature enough type of technology to be worth owning. For now, though, the more you think about ’em, the more apparent it becomes that their actual present purpose has less to do with real-world usage and more to do with the message their very existence provides.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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