Commentary: Do we really need a foldable smartphone?

Samsung unveiled a prototype foldable smartphone at its developer conference last week. This is hot on the heels of Chinese display-maker Royole launching FlexPai - probably the world's first consumer smartphone with a folding screen.

I am of course reserving judgment until I get my hands on both devices.

Nevertheless, I find myself far less excited than many of my friends and a few former colleagues, who seemed gobsmacked by this foldable smartphone concept and filled my social media feeds with excited posts when the news broke.

Now, I do understand the excitement. Every now and then, I hear friends, relatives and colleagues lamenting the lack of innovation in smartphones.

There have recently been only incremental improvements like bigger screens, thinner bezels, more cameras and notches with new smartphone launches.

It is getting boring and smartphone sales are hurting worldwide.

According to market research firm IDC, smartphone shipments in the second quarter of this year declined by 1.8 per cent compared with the same period last year.

 
 
 

"The combination of market saturation, increased smartphone penetration rates and climbing average selling price continues to dampen the growth of the overall market," said Mr Anthony Scarsella, IDC's research manager.

Thus, smartphone makers are under increasing pressure to sell more smartphones in this ever-saturated smartphone market.

Companies are hoping foldable smartphones will be the answer.

But do we really need a foldable smartphone?

Remember the time when TV makers were pushing 3D TVs as if they were the best thing since sliced bread?

It was for the same reason of trying to counter declining sales and market saturation.

Yet, 3D TVs did not catch on.

Many might have bought 3D TVs, but the lack of compelling 3D content meant most 3D glasses stayed in the box. Not to mention, the many users who experienced motion sickness with 3D viewing.

"Folding phones are the 3D TV of the mobile world," tweeted Wall Street Journal tech columnist Christopher Mims after last week's announcements by Royole and Samsung.

I agree with him. I am not so sure if foldable smartphones are the answer to our mobile computing needs.

Yes, I do see the advantage of having a smartphone turning into a tablet when you unfold it. I love big screens too, as it makes the mobile computing experience better, whether for work or leisure.

But such foldable displays come with many disadvantages.

Durability is the first thing that comes to mind. Royole said FlexPai's foldable display can withstand more than 200,000 open-and-shut actions.

But will the display be able to maintain colour uniformity?

What happens if the display cannot bend and you do not have a pocket big enough to slot the smartphone in?

The next issue is thickness. Looking at Royole's FlexPai and Samsung's concept smartphone, both look really thick. They are not easy to slot into the pocket - this is at a time when smartphones are getting ever-slimmer.

Also, battery life is going to be an issue.

Already we are complaining about smartphones not being able to last a day.

With the bendable form, there is going to be a limit to how big the battery can go.

Furthermore, a foldable smartphone is essentially like a clamshell phone with two displays (without the seam in the middle).

It just feels like the design is going back to the pre-iPhone age. Maybe Motorola can also have a renaissance with a bendable Razr smartphone.

But despite my reservations, this development is certainly interesting and refreshing for the tech world, with more smartphone makers like Huawei and LG rumoured to be launching foldable smartphones next year.

Will foldable smartphones become the 3D TV of smartphones?

Or will it be the new gold standard of smartphones?

Only time will tell.

But as of now, I am a sceptic.