- A Microsoft folding phone prototype leaked last week on eBay.
- Nobody is buying folding phones—just look around you.
- There are so many technical difficulties that it may be impossible to make a viable folding phone.
A prototype of a cheaper plastic version of Microsoft’s folding Surface Duo 2 appeared on eBay recently. It’s interesting as an artifact, but it also raises the question: just what is happening with folding phones?
Take a look around you the next time you’re on public transport, and you’ll see most people glued to their phones or listening to podcasts or music—also from their phones. The odd person will use a tablet, e-reader, or paper book to read, but how many folding phones do you see? Almost certainly none. They seem cool on paper, but in real life, they’re a great big flop.
"There are a number of factors that suggest foldable phones could be popular with consumers," Oberon Copeland, tech writer and owner and CEO of the Very Informed website, told Lifewire via email. "First, they offer a great deal of versatility, as users can choose between using them as a standard phone or expanding the screen for a more immersive tablet experience. Second, they tend to be very sleek and lightweight, making them easy to carry around. And third, they tend to be very expensive, which could appeal to buyers who want to show off their status with the latest and greatest device."
Nice, but Not Nice Enough
A folding phone seems like a great idea. It essentially lets you pocket a tablet-sized screen, and that screen remains protected while folded. You can watch movies, type on one half while seeing your words on the other, and so on.
But as soon as you start to look at the practicalities, the appeal of folding phones starts to wither. The biggest problem is the price. These things all make the highest-end smartphones, like the iPhone Pro, look cheap. You’ll be paying well over a grand—even the flawed Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 can cost around $2,000. Why are they so expensive? First, you essentially have two phones joined with a hinge. And that hinge has to be amazing, or the whole deal is off.
They offer a great deal of versatility, as users can choose between using them as a standard phone or expanding the screen for a more immersive tablet experience.
Early folding phones developed creases along the screen at the hinge after a startlingly short time, and even today, you can research foldable screen problems and see lots of reports of the screen’s protective layer peeling off. It’s also possible to use glass screens, but then you really do feel like you have two phones stuck together.
"Of course, there are also some drawbacks to foldable phones that could limit their appeal. One is that they can be difficult to use with one hand, as the larger screen can make it hard to reach all the way across. Another is that they’re often quite fragile, and even small drops can cause major damage," says Copeland.
There’s more. When folded, the package is thick. Technically, it’s pocketable, unlike even small tablets, but you probably wouldn’t want to do it. And finally, it’s hard to just glance at your phone to check your notifications. One answer is to put the vulnerable screen on the outside. The other is to add yet another, smaller screen to show info while the main screens are closed, which adds more complexity and cost.
If they’re so hard to make, so expensive, and so full of compromises, why do manufacturers insist on making them?
One reason could be hype. In the "me-too" Android phone market, any new feature or idea quickly spreads to other handsets, a kind of entropy of innovation. "If everyone else makes one, then we should too," the thinking may go.
Also, right now, folding phones are one of the few ways to differentiate a product from the iPhone. Apple doesn’t make one, nor does it show any signs of doing so. There’s no way Apple would ship a phone with a creasing screen or a screen that could accidentally peel off, and until those problems are solved, there likely won’t be a folding iPhone.
App maker, videoFX expert, and hardware reviewer Stu Maschwitz is more direct:
"Folding phones are stupid, and you will never have one unless your job is to have stupid phones," says Maschwitz on Twitter.
In fact, given the downsides for both users and manufacturers, it’s hard to see the folding phone ever being more than an expensive niche product for a few hardcore nerds. If it could be thinner, more robust, lightweight, and have a screen as good as an iPad’s screen when unfolded, all while costing only a little more than a regular tablet, then maybe things will change.
But that doesn’t look likely anytime soon.