This time last year, I had just become the proud new owner of a folding phone – the Samsung Galaxy Flip3.
For the uninitiated, it’s a phone about the size of a regular smartphone that folds in half.
I told anyone who would listen that this was the phone I had been waiting for since the Motorola Razr clamshell in 2004 – finally I had a device that would fit in my pocket again.
Thirteen months later, the dream was over. A few days ago, the “fold” line suddenly became larger and silverier, the bottom half of the screen turned green, the top half was unresponsive, and then an ominous black cloud began to spread around the screen.
It can now be called the former telephone.
Success hinges on durability
The folding phone is making its debut in 2019 to much fanfare. Many in the industry speculate that the device will reinvigorate the stagnant smartphone industry, once again create a new buzz in the phone space and convince people to upgrade as data shows they are holding on to their phones longer and are not interested in the homogeneous black rectangle.
Huawei and Samsung lead the foldable charge and maintain market leadership. Other competitors are mainly in the Chinese market – cheaper brands like OPPO, Xiaomi and Vivo. Apple remains conspicuously absent.
I remember sitting in an airplane hangar-sized structure in Barcelona that year and could hear gasps as Huawei showed off its version of the Mate X – released for around £2,000.
I convinced a very nervous member of the Chinese tech giant’s team to let me hold one and wait just a few seconds to take a photo.
“Don’t move the fold,” he implored.
That same year, both companies delayed the launch of their new Samsung products at the last minute, when early reviewers reported broken screens.
But durability tests since then have shown improvements. Earlier this month, Samsung unveiled its next generation of foldable products – the Fold4 – and promised a more robust screen and better water resistance.
According to Samsung, the current generation should be able to withstand 200,000 folds. I can’t attest to that, and I’m a heavy phone user, but I don’t believe I’ve opened my phone very often in the 13 months I’ve had it.
As for the “folding revolution” – Samsung says it sold nearly 10 million folding phones in 2021, and those devices certainly have a fan base online. However, that same year, Apple sold more than 49 million iPhones in just three months, according to consumer data firm Statista. As a result, folding phones are still only a small part of the multi-billion dollar smartphone industry.
Ben Wood of analyst CCS Insight told me, “I haven’t seen a lot of damage to foldable devices, but at a time when [our research shows] people are storing their phones in the UK for four years or more, people want to have phones that last longer.”
The longtime industry observer believes Samsung’s new phones will last longer, saying manufacturers will have to do things differently if they are to compete with the “freight train” of Apple’s iPhone.
“I really admire Samsung for saying we have to be bold, we have to do something different,” he said.
“Do we all need a foldable phone? Absolutely not. It’s definitely for people who want something that looks different. Especially since the Flip has a strong female bias.”
The phone folds horizontally into a more compact, square device that certainly fits better in smaller pockets – or indeed, no pockets at all – which is often an unwelcome feature of women’s clothing.
I have had no problems with my folding phone working and it is usually a conversation starter as it is very unusual. I’ve only met one other Flip3 owner, a guy on a train, who asked me where I got my case from because he kept dropping his (the shiny exterior was slippery – mine took some knocks too).
“I’ve only seen those on TV!” A lady said as she stopped me at a cafe to take a look. I asked her if she wanted one and she just laughed.
You can certainly repair them – for a fee. According to Samsung’s website, the internal screen repair costs £309, which is £90 more than the cost of a new screen on the standard device, the S21. If purchased outright, the new Flip3 phone is currently advertised at £899. Samsung also offers insurance packages to reduce the cost of repairs.
But given the environmental impact of making smartphones – there are around 60 elements in them – not to mention the soaring cost of living, longevity is more important than ever. Android and Apple software has been tweaked to make older devices to run longer – Apple has even controversially slowed down older iPhones to (it says) extend battery life.
In the current climate, a foldable phone may be a risky approach to a device that millions of people rely on every day. As I figure out my next move, I’ve gone back to cheap Android devices – but I’m not sure I’ve closed the door on foldable devices entirely.