Samsung Galaxy Fold: Innovation infatuation

Technological innovation is incredible — but when it comes to an actual purchasable product, there has to be a reason for the innovation to exist.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Sometimes, a crazy type of technology comes along that you just know is going to change everything — to usher in a completely new style of productivity and revolutionize the very way we work, play, and sing our silly ol' sailor songs.

I hate to be the curmudgeonly old grouch sipping cream soda on the corner (that's what curmudgeonly old grouches do, isn't it?), but lemme tell ya: Samsung's newly announced Galaxy Fold is not that item.

The Galaxy Fold, in case you've spent the past 24 hours folded up on a couch and slumbering, is Samsung's latest and greatest "next big thing" — one of the company's trademark wild ideas that's bound to draw accolades and attention. The device, in short, is an Android phone that folds out to reveal an Android tablet. Wild, right?!

It is — and from an engineering standpoint, it's insanely impressive. There's no denying that. But like so many mobile tech innovations before it (many of them by Samsung, for that matter), we have to step back and ask ourselves if it's innovation for the sake of innovation — a mere parlor trick to create buzz and generate excitement about a smartphone at a time when we're all hanging onto phones for longer than ever — or if it's innovation with a purpose, with an actual real-world human benefit (beyond just the opportunity to open our wallets) in mind.

In the case of the Galaxy Fold, it's tough not to see the product as falling into the former dimension. And with its nearly $2,000 price, it's tougher yet to think of any valid reason why anyone should buy one.

Unfolding the Galaxy Fold

Let's break down the whole pitch behind the Galaxy Fold to see if we can figure it out, shall we? In short, best I can tell, the pitch is basically: "This phone does something your current phone can't — and by golly, does it ever seem cool."

And you know what? Yes! It does seem cool. But back to that question of practicality: What does it actually accomplish?

Well, the Galaxy Fold lets you have a pocket-sized phone and a large-screened tablet at the same time, y'see. You can view up to three apps at once on its larger screen. It provides all the advantages of a tablet with all the portability of a phone, gosh darn it!

Or so the marketing materials would like you to believe. Ask yourself this, though: At an event where Samsung made the Galaxy Fold its main star, why didn't the company let anyone actually see or hold the thing for themselves? Even when a device isn't entirely finished, companies almost always let reporters see a working model, even if only in a closely controlled demo — especially when the product is a mere couple months away from hitting store shelves. Heck, even the on-stage demos of the Fold, where the phone was held up and visible, were curiously short and limited.

The reason is almost certainly that by carefully controlling what aspects of the device we can assess, Samsung can carefully control the message — and keep it centered on that exciting narrative of innovation. In the real world, though, there are some near-certain realities about the Galaxy Fold that'll make it less than ideal for any type of use:

It's going to be ridiculously thick and awkward.

There's no way around it: When you have what are essentially two smartphone-like rectangles folding on top of each other, the resulting "pocket-sized" gadget is gonna be comically thick compared to the sleek devices we're accustomed to carrying today. Is that an "upgrade" anyone actually wants?

Samsung Galaxy Fold Closed Samsung

Using it in its phone mode is going to feel like using a 2010-era device.

For all the talk over being able to unfold your phone into a tablet-sized screen, the actual phone screen — what you see when the phone is folded up — is tiny: It's a 4.6-in. display with gigantic bezels, no less. That's more in line with the Galaxy S II than anything on the market today.

Samsung Galaxy Fold Closed (2) Samsung

Using it in its tablet mode is likely going to be underwhelming, too, as far as the display goes.

We can't say for sure until Samsung lets anyone actually use the thing, but odds are high that the display quality on the Fold's unfolded screen will be noticeably worse than the high-quality panels we're used to eyeing on high-end phones today. Aside from the apparent visible center seam, achieving a premium display appearance in technology that's designed explicitly to be malleable — one with a "polymer layer" made specifically for the folding purposes — would be quite the unlikely feat.

Samsung Galaxy Fold Open Samsung

The Galaxy Fold will almost certainly be far more fragile than a typical phone.

What happens when you add a hinge into the center of sensitive technology? The odds of it breaking go up exponentially. Imagine what would happen if you were to drop this thing — and then imagine what you'd go through trying to get it repaired.

Proper app support is going to be spotty at best.

Samsung spent plenty of time talking about how the Galaxy Fold's folded out screen could let you view three apps at once and even seamlessly move apps from the device's outer display to its inner — but the company also called out a tiny number of titles that had been optimized to support that behavior. With such a niche and high-priced phone that's likely to have limited appeal to begin with, how many developers are really gonna take the time to update their apps with proper support for the arrangement when the benefits will be minimal for the foreseeable future? And how frustrating is it gonna be to use mostly apps that aren't designed to support the Fold's unusual form and may react in any number of not-so-optimal ways?

Samsung's own software support for the Fold is bound to be questionable.

With its standard and strong-selling Galaxy S and Note flagships, Samsung's performance with post-sales software support is subpar at best (even in a post-Treble world). Just imagine how poky the company will be when it comes to getting important software updates out to a phone like the Fold — one that requires extra effort, given its specialized form, and one whose base of users will be a drop in the bucket compared to Samsung's more mainstream mobile products.

The biggest lingering question

Beyond all of the individual areas of concern, the biggest thing to think about with the Galaxy Fold — getting back to what we said at the start of this story — is quite simply: Why? Why does this form exist, other than to serve as a technological showcase and to try to drum up excitement and attention for an increasingly mundane-seeming product category? What will it actually allow us to do that we can't do already?

Sure, you'll have a larger-screened device that fits in your pocket — but it's likely to be at least twice as thick as a regular phone and significantly heavier, too. Its smaller (folded-in) display won't be particularly pleasant to use. And as for that larger (folded-out) screen, will having a 7.3-in. display allow you to do anything meaningfully better than you can do with a standard large-screened device right now? Heck, Samsung's own new Galaxy S10+ has a 6.4-in. display, and it doesn't come with all the aforementioned downsides of the foldable phone. Is going from that size screen to the Fold's slightly bigger screen really gonna change that much for you? Is having three apps on-screen at the same time instead of the standard two something you'll really, truly take advantage of often — something that makes all of the other asterisks worthwhile?

Ultimately, it's hard not to see the Galaxy Fold as a collection of compromises with little significant value aside from novelty and technological "wow" factor. By trying to create a device that can be everything, Samsung seems to have made a product that excels at nothing. Whether in its phone mode or its tablet mode, you're accepting all sorts of tradeoffs compared to the more typical forms in order to have that nifty-seeming transformation. And it's hard to think of a single situation where that would be advisable.

Samsung certainly deserves credit for accomplishing something interesting and impressive from a technological perspective — but look: This isn't an awards show for prototypes. This is the real-world, with a real product that costs a really large amount of money. And while there's no telling what the future may hold and what benefits foldable displays could deliver eventually, right now, it's tough to see the Galaxy Fold as anything more than a high-tech parlor trick designed to get folks talking.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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