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Stop Trying to Make the Foldable Phone Happen

Picture shows the new ZTE's dual screens foldable smartphone AXON M on the first day of the Mobile World Congress (MWC) on February 26, 2018 in Barcelona. Josep Lago—AFP/Getty Images

Folding screens are the flying cars of the mobile phone world—forever just around the corner but not quite here yet; kind of an interesting idea, but do people really need or want them?

The era of the folding smartphone screen was declared imminent in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and now it’s apparently looming yet again. The Wall Street Journal notes a slew of patents and release plans from several manufacturers, and The Verge reports a new demo from a company called Royole Corporation.

Here’s that demo. Bear in mind this seems to be a prototype, not a finished product:

For smartphone manufacturers, the desire to deploy foldable screens is perfectly understandable. Handsets have become commoditized like PCs before them. Yes, the bezels around screens are shrinking and many phones sport notches now, but this is not innovation so much as refinement.

Top-of-the-line smartphones may be getting pricier, but there’s hardly anything they can do that a far cheaper mid-range phone cannot—those price bumps are more about premium branding than anything else, though camera quality is a significant factor these days. Each new phone is more powerful than the last, but this improvement is only really meaningful for a relatively small segment of users who engage in hardcore gaming. Even cheap phones are powerful enough for most apps.

So, to set their devices apart, manufacturers want to adopt new gimmicks, such as foldable screens. The Journal suggests there’s also a tie-in with the much-hyped rollout of 5G networks, which will accelerate “a boom in consumption of video, virtual reality and other visually engaging media,” but virtual reality needs goggles rather than screens, and today’s 4G networks are already pretty capable on the video-streaming front.

Bendable displays have actually been viable for quite some time, but they present some inherent problems. Longevity is one: you may be able to bend a screen effectively, but can you do so over a couple of years without the thing breaking or wearing out? What happens if you drop or sit on it—will it break more easily than a regular phone?

Bulkiness is another issue. There is an unmistakable trend in phone design toward greater thinness, even if it comes at the expense of battery life (indeed, one of the benefits of ever-larger phone screens is that they allow for bigger batteries without needing greater depth.) If they are not to be unfeasibly fragile, foldable smartphone screens will necessarily result in a bulkier end product that won’t sit so easily in jeans pockets.

The biggest problem, though, is this: do people actually want a foldable smartphone screen? The evidence provided by one already-released product, ZTE’s Axon M, is not promising. As one review noted, videos are only slightly larger despite the doubled-up screen, and the whole thing seems to be lacking a practical point. “The Axon M isn’t something any sane person should buy,” read another review. According to the Journal, the device “sold poorly.”

That’s just one product, of course, so perhaps it is unfair to condemn the entire category on the basis of its apparent failure. But it remains far from clear why foldable smartphone screens should succeed. Standard smartphone screens have already become so large as to cannibalize the market for smaller tablets—note that Apple hasn’t updated the iPad mini since 2015—so if someone really needs to jump to a larger screen size, a standard-sized tablet seems to be the logical choice. They’re not very expensive these days.

Yes, you may soon see manufacturers trying to sell you a phone with a foldable screen, but push does not equate to pull. If it did, 3D TVs would still be a thing.