As more folding phones get released, I’m seeing more people ask an important and honest question: does anybody really need this? There are many different answers but I think the most important one is simply this: not at the prices we’ve seen so far, no.
But if prices can come down and build quality can go up, I can see all sorts of cases for folding phones. The easiest case to make is for something like the Galaxy Fold, a phone that unfolds into a little mini tablet. In both of my reviews of that device, I came away disappointed in the execution but interested in the idea. Little tablets are nicer than giant phones, and making one more portable seems like a good idea.
A flip phone is a tougher call, though. For the Motorola Razr, there was an opportunity for it to just ride on its nostalgia value — a squandered one, it turns out. It’s an opportunity I don’t think will come around a second time. Motorola tarnished the Razr brand with this launch. More importantly, many (maybe most!) people just don’t feel that nostalgia at all, as Marques Brownlee recently pointed out.
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The main reason I think people might want a folding phone is that it is, in fact, more portable. It fits better into small pockets and handbags. Yes, they are thicker than equivalent smartphones, but there really are people who care less about that Z-axis than not having a slab sticking out of their jeans.
The Galaxy Fold has two main use cases: the phone mode for quick things and the tablet mode for immersive things. What was interesting about it is that there was nothing in between, so it made me more conscious of my phone usage.
I didn’t experience anything like that with the Razr. I don’t think it’s likely that a flip phone will fundamentally change our sometimes overindulgent relationship with our phones. Sure, there is a tactile satisfaction to closing it and maybe a psychological benefit of seeing it closed and not in use. There’s some value there, but I don’t know how much.
But I don’t want to dismiss this form factor just yet. Before everybody settled on monolithic slabs of glass, there was a wide diversity of form factors for phones. It meant that you could find a phone that fit your preferences and personality, something that had a little character.
Back in the day we had “candybars” and “flip phones” and which one you got was purely a matter of style and personal preference. They didn’t do much, so literally you’d go to the store and pick one based on something other than specs. You’d pick the one that looked cool, had the battery life you wanted, was the most durable, or some other thing.
Now, most of that expression comes through phone cases. But as smartphones get ever harder to distinguish from one another, I don’t think it would be such a terrible thing for us to have more choices in form factors. If most smartphones do basically the same thing, we could go back to picking one that looks cool or is the most durable. There’s still the iOS vs Android divide, of course, but at least in Android world there could be more choice.
If folding phones can come down in price and come up in their durability, I don’t see why we couldn’t have that kind of choice with our smartphones again, too.