Foldable phones and the return of the clamshell

TCL foldable prototype open 2

The first generation of foldable displays is ushering in a new wave of smartphone form factors. So far, the Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X offer bigger phones with double the screen real estate. These designs are great for multitasking and look quite stunning, but they’re equal parts impractical and almost certainly not worth the huge expense.

However, future foldable phones could take on even more interesting and even classic form factors. They won’t have to cost a month’s or more salary either, at least if TCL’s long-term strategy comes to fruition. Android Authority caught up with TCL’s Stefan Streit and Jason Gerdon in London to take a look at one of the company’s prototypes and talk about the future of foldable devices.

The foldable device we had a quick play with (which you can see below) is very much in the prototype stage and likely won’t represent a final product. However, the display is fully working, and it bends and flexes just like you would expect. The viewing angles are reasonable, although it’s a little temperamental with touch sensitivity. TCL’s much-touted DragonHinge works really well, offering enough resistance for a free-stop in any position, without being unduly difficult to maneuver.

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What is more glaringly deficient is the stock Android OS, although I imagine TCL will do a lot more tweaking here come a final product. Android has some support for foldable devices with dedicated APIs inside Android 10, and Samsung and Huawei worked some magic to create mostly smooth experiences on their devices. But there’s much more to be done to support new use cases and breakout apps that will drive foldable device adoption.

That being said, the design space is a bit of a wild west at the moment. TCL’s Gerdon notes that “asking [Google] to adopt a single standard would be unrealistic because everyone could have different form factors,” while Streit sees that manufacturers, OS, and app developers will need to come together to find combined solutions to make flexible products compelling. This is particularly true when companies begin experimenting with more unique foldable designs and flexible wearable products.

Return of the clamshell

While today’s foldable phones look quite similar, this could quickly break out into an explosion of fresh, diverse new designs that finally make smartphone aesthetics interesting again.

TCL sees plenty of design potential in the foldable space. For example, “you could have a physical keyboard on a flexible, foldable product” Streit posits. Alternatively, he suggests you could take a phone and “cut it in the middle, with one display, one hinge,” which will presumably be much more affordable than the dual-display products currently on the market. The classic clamshell or feature flip-phone design could be about to make a comeback, making foldable devices more affordable at the same time.

Classic clamshell and feature flip-phone designs could make a comeback with flexible displays.

We actually saw a number of TCL’s clamshell examples back at MWC 2019, albeit behind a glass case. The company continues to explore these ideas, including wrap-around wearables that are apparently “very easy to do,” according to Streit, at least as far as the display is concerned. But whittling down form factors that consumers will actually find useful is a separate problem that’s yet to be solved.

TCL foldable phone MWC 2019

Streit is convinced that the company has the hardware solutions for a wide variety of flexible products, but there currently isn’t a perfect solution to handle the software interactions. For example, he asks, “What happens if I have an app open and I close the device? Does it appear on the front display? How does it react? Does the phone say no, you closed that app?” We flagged up this issue in our Galaxy Fold review. App continuity is disabled by default, presumably so you can close apps when closing the handset. Phones can’t read your intent — not yet anyway — and these little software eccentricities are yet to be perfected.

Even so, TCL doesn’t believe foldables will just be limited to phones. “What we want people to be thinking about isn’t necessarily one form factor” suggests Gerdon, but “what else in the office do we use on a regular basis that could be foldable?” Tablets and wearables are also a given, but other home devices and even IoT products are on the menu too.

Pricing and brand awareness

TCL Plex colors

Currently, the foldable phone’s biggest barrier to adoption is price. Few customers are willing to pay $1,980 for a first-generation phone with suspected build issues. Part of what you’re paying for here is the brand as well as first adopter status. Without that big brand price tag, TCL anticipates it can position its first foldable phone at a more affordable entry point.

TCL’s 5G and foldable products won’t necessarily be cheap, but they could be vastly less expensive than the current market players. “There are certain cost constraints when you’re using more advanced technologies,” explains Gerdon. TCL plans to be affordable within the context of each market. “It depends on the product” he notes. “With foldables today, the benchmark is between $2,000 and $2,500. We can be much less than that.”

The tricky part is whittling down the form factors that consumers actually find useful.

TCL’s strategy is to use the Plex — the first handset to sport TCL branding — as a building block for future releases. The company envisions gradually building up its brand awareness while it develops a foldable product that doesn’t suffer from the current shortcomings. We’ll have to wait until CES and possibly MWC before TCL is willing to talk more about its first foldable smartphone. The company is making all the right noises, we’ll just have to hope its upcoming products deliver.

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