Are Foldable Devices the Next Big Thing, or a Passing Fad?
Unless app makers can find a way to deliver real value, foldables might be just another solution in search of a problem
Foldable devices are all over the news these days. Some are based on actual foldable displays (Samsung, Huawei), others are more economic and use two separate panels rotating around a 360-degree hinge (LG, Motorola, Microsoft).
Regardless of the underlying implementation, the purported use cases are similar: run two apps side-by-side or let an app use extra screen real estate when available.
Their makers tout them as the future of mobile productivity, the must-have upgrade for your aging smartphone. The main question for software makers is a bit different, though: Are foldables the future, or just a passing fad?
This is an important question to consider, as we need to decide whether to use precious resources to investigate this form factor and its effect on our products.
In order to answer it, we need to digress a bit and see how we got to the current state of affairs in mobile development.
The physical design of mobile devices hasn’t changed much for the past 10 years. Almost all manufacturers have settled on the form factor introduced by Apple with the iPhone in 2007 (and the iPad in 2010, on the tablet side) with little variation on the theme. Granted, there has been a certain degree of differentiation in details such as the placement of cameras and biometric sensors, and, of course, the deliberate selection of materials and components to justify different price points, but in the end, all modern mobile devices look pretty much the same: a rectangular slate largely dominated by a touch screen, running either of the two dominating operating systems — iOS and Android.
In terms of software, ecosystem-specifics aside, there isn’t really much reason for the end user to choose one platform over the other. Most apps and games are available on both, with pretty much the same functionality. The operating systems themselves have been converging in user experience too, with the once unique benefits of widgets (Android) and coherent notification handling (iOS) now working in a similar way on both platforms.
The effect of this convergence for software makers has been that we have no choice but to write software for both operating systems if we want to stand a chance of having our app widely used.
Luckily, the uniformity in the space has made this easier. Nowadays, there are frameworks such as React Native and Flutter that allow us to write cross-platform code in record time while maintaining good performance and a native user experience across both systems.
Living in a uniform market
Uniformity and conformity are nice, but they stifle innovation. In a market where everybody is the same, there are only three possible outcomes when you’re trying to be different. Outcome A: Nobody cares. Outcome B: You carve out a niche. Outcome C: Your solution is so much better than everybody else’s that it disrupts the market. These are in order of likelihood, from most likely to least likely. Most challenges to the status quo end up in the Outcome A bucket.
Products that solve a real problem are more likely to end up in either Outcome B or Outcome C, depending on the size of the problem (that is, how many users are affected) and the fitness-for-purpose of the solution.
Let’s look at some examples of products that fall into these different outcomes.
Outcome A: The BlackBerry Playbook, a tablet that tried to challenge the iPad and nascent Android tablet market by riding on the BlackBerry platform’s coattails but was ultimately let down by app unavailability even after introducing Android apps support.
Outcome B: The Samsung Galaxy Note, a smartphone now in its 10th iteration, with a killer feature in its S Pen. Not everyone’s device of choice, but the only one you need if you are traditionally a fan of jotting down handwritten notes.
Outcome C: The Apple iPhone. We had smartphones before the iPhone came along, but they were a completely different beast. The iPhone threw away the physical keyboard in favor of a variable screen real estate that enables better content consumption on the go without much drawback when user input is needed.
The question for the foldable is then the same age-old one: What is the problem you are trying to solve?
At the beginning of this article, we looked at the two common use cases for foldables. These are valid, and more use cases might be revealed as foldables make their way to consumers. However, they are use cases for the device itself, not necessarily for a third-party app.
As software makers, we need to understand what’s the benefit of using two screens for our own app, and how to behave accordingly.
I am specifically considering the foldable as two screens joined together in this case, as it’s easier to illustrate my point, but the same applies when looking at the screen as a resizable work area that expands and shrinks according to the user’s preference.
Let’s consider the case of an e-reader. Assuming a device is foldable along its y-axis (like a real book), the easy answer is to present two pages side-by-side to the user when the device is open. This is nice and skeuomorphic, but does it really benefit the user much, aside from a less frequent page flip?
Depending on the specialization of the app, there are more interesting alternatives. For instance, if our e-reader was targeted at students or researchers, we could use the extra screen real estate to allow our user to annotate and read footnotes. For language learning, we could have content in two different languages side-by-side.
Another example is that of an agenda/organizer app like Microsoft Outlook. You could use one side of the fold to display your daily overview, while the other side would show details of your next appointment and a map of its location.
These are UX considerations based on the availability of both screens for an app. There’s also the use case of an app being displayed on one side while another app is presented on the other, per the user’s choice. In this case, the app could behave differently depending on the context, for example by making it easier to send and receive information to and from another app while in this mode.
This brings me to the next point: How good is the API?
This is a question mainly directed at the device manufacturers and OS developers. We can only support foldables if good APIs are provided.
On iOS, Apple has kept their APIs private in the past, especially when introducing new technology. This does not help with adoption as it limits the use case investigation we talked about earlier.
On Android, there’s a risk that different manufacturers will come up with different APIs for their own implementation of a foldable device. We have seen this before with Samsung and their S Pen SDK and multiwindow support. This was resolved in Android 6 and 7, respectively, with the OS catching up and offering more support for exotic (for lack of a better word) devices.
As Apple hasn’t entered the foldable race yet, we don’t know what’s in store on that front. On the Android side, Samsung is seemingly relying on existing Android support for the concurrent display of multiple apps (good), while LG relies on their own Dual Screen SDK (bad). This is less than ideal.
So, should you investigate foldables support for your app?
Foldables and you
Thanks for sticking around thus far. Hopefully you have a better idea now of whether it’s worth investing any time on foldables at this point, but here are the main considerations once again:
What benefit does a foldable bring to your user?
Depending on your app, the benefit of a foldable to the user may vary. Generally, anybody can benefit from more screen real estate, but specific apps might use this extra space to boost productivity or provide a different user experience.
If you think your app falls in the latter camp, then it might be worth spending some time to do further research.
Can you get by with the current API?
The APIs will evolve alongside foldables. More functionality might be coming later as the use cases become clearer and uniformity once again is applied to this new technology. Can you wait until then, or is there any benefit in jumping on the foldable bandwagon sooner?
Will there by widespread user adoption?
This is another important point to take into account. Foldables are an example of manufacturers trying to be different. Looking at the three outcomes we saw earlier in this article for such cases, chances of success in this differentiation are dependent on the solution solving a real problem for the user.
At the moment, foldables seem more like an answer in search of a question. They don’t justify the added bulk and price with a convincing argument and therefore seem more like a passing fad. However, it’s still early days. Apple hasn’t made a move in the space yet, while Microsoft showed a couple of interesting takes on the concept slated for release toward the end of 2020, specifically Surface Duo and Surface Neo.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t discard the trend as a fad yet, but I want to see more. I want to see the Galaxy Fold in the wild, I want to play with the LG G8X and its dual screen. I want to see how Microsoft and Google are collaborating on the Surface Neo to supercharge productivity.
On the user experience side, I want to see experiments with this form factor involving the average consumer. Do they find it confusing? How would they use the extra screen? What’s the main mode they’d use the device in (folded, open, in portrait mode, in landscape, etc.)?
All in all, this trend is a breath of fresh air after years of “me too” slate designs, but it’s still in its infancy. Business viability and market adoption will most likely be determined by the evolution of this form factor in the next year or so, alongside the consolidation of APIs and SDKs to enable third party development.