CES 2019 shows the foldable phone revolution will be awkward, but essential

The rumored Galaxy F is expected to make an appearance at Samsung's Unpacked event in February, even if the focus will be on the flagship Galaxy S10 smartphone.

Royole Foldable Phone on sale
Royole Foldable Phone on sale

When I finally got my hands on the Royole Flexpai, the world’s first flexible smartphone, I couldn’t stop obsessing about the rubber spine as I opened and closed it.

I worried that I was going to break it, but the two halves snapped into place via magnets just fine. Watching the Android operating system flex and bend on the display kept me riveted.

But then I tried using the phone.

I tapped the screen, and nothing happened. When it finally did, another widget popped over the main menu. I folded out the display, and waited for the screen to reorient itself. And waited. Tap, tap, tap. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was definitely not ready for prime time.

To be fair, the phone I tried out wasn’t a commercial-ready unit yet, and the Royole engineer who showed me the phone said updates were coming daily.

But that first awkward experience underscores some of the growing pains that flexible smartphones are likely to endure as they make their debut this year. The idea of a device that you unfold to enlarge, or roll up to put in your pocket, is the stuff of sci-fi movies, the kind of thing I grew up fantasizing about. Only, it’s real now, and it opens the door to new types of designs beyond the boring slab of plastic or metal.

“Remember when we went from the keyboard to the screen,” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said in an interview on Monday at CES 2019. “It was so huge. Innovation came with it.”

Vestberg declined to comment on whether Verizon would sell a foldable phone. More

Samsung Galaxy F?

If anyone can create a polished product, it’s Samsung.

The company has teased a foldable phone for years, and it’s finally ready to deliver in the first half.

“2019 is the perfect blend of consumer interest in this technology and technology advancements,” said Suzanne de Silva, director of product marketing and strategy for Samsung Electronics, in an interview with CNET.

The rumored Galaxy F is expected to make an appearance at Samsung’s Unpacked event in February, even if the focus will be on the flagship Galaxy S10 smartphone. Unlike the Flexpai, whose screens fold on the outside, Samsung’s flexible screen will be on the inside, and the device will close up like a clamshell. (There’s also a smaller, more standard screen on the outside.)

De Silva called it a feat of engineering, noting that the phone has an articulated spine that allows it to open and close smoothly like a book. When the Flexpai is folded, there’s still an annoying gap in the middle, as in the Microsoft Surface Book laptop.

But just as important as the hardware is the software, and having an experience that best makes use of all that screen real estate. Samsung, however, has had a mixed history with its software and user experience. Part of me is worried about the challenges of a completely new design scheme.

De Silva said Samsung is focusing on the software, including the ability to run three apps simultaneously and to do one-handed navigation even with the bigger display.

Others are more cautious.

“While it seems obvious that people would love a small phone that has a big display, until we see these phones, it won’t be clear whether consumers are willing to accept the trade-offs that new form factors inevitably bring,” said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data. More