Opinion: Galaxy Fold isn’t the future, but it’s not a gimmick either
The Galaxy Fold is interesting, but Samsung hasn't made a case for it being the next big thing by itself.
Increasingly, I'm being asked by people whether or not folding phones are a fad. Yet another gimmick in the tired roulette of tricks smartphone manufacturers play to get us hooked on their latest shiny gadget, and there's certainly been a few of those.
Phones with dedicated Facebook buttons. Amazon Fire Phones. Phones with 3D autostereoscopic screens, so you can take "3D" photos... that stay on the phone. Phones with dedicated Bluetooth "charm" dongles, so you can leave them in their purse. I could go on.
The smartphone industry loves a gimmick that helps them differentiate, and in 2019, finding a unique gimmick is pretty tough.
There's an awful lot of commonality in smartphone construction and components, after all. There's nothing wrong with having proper quality control in how you slap those components together, but that doesn't exactly excite people when it's time to buy a new smartphone.
That's what a clever smartphone gimmick can do, because you can throw that into a short sizzle reel to excite people.
You know. Like that one.
24 hours out from the reveal of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, I've been pondering on whether or not it really is a gimmick, or the next big thing.
Ultimately, I don't think it's either.
It doesn't quite fit the "gimmick" label, because previous smartphone gimmicks have tended strongly to be one-trick ponies with limited appeal. Samsung isn't innocent in this regard, having slapped some truly weird apps and features and even launchers on previous smartphones.
Its upgraded One UI interface, which features on the Galaxy S10 but can also now be run on the Galaxy S9 and selected other Galaxy phones, is so much better than the previous TouchWiz launcher that it's not even funny.
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But will there be queues around the block as Samsung grabs the attention of the smartphone buying world in a way that we haven't seen since the early days of the Apple iPhone?
The price alone will quell the enthusiasm of most folks. While there's no announced Australian pricing, Samsung has said that it intends to launch the Galaxy Fold here before the end of the 2nd quarter of 2019, and that we'll be "among the world's first" to be able to buy one.
We know that it will launch in the US, starting at $1,980. Just on straight conversion terms that would equate to around $2,800 locally. Add GST to that and you're coming away with very little change from $3,000. That's just the entry level price too, and it's not even clear if that's a "carrier price" (i.e. subsidised) in the US, so it could cost even more.
Android 9 ("Pie") is a pretty good smartphone OS, but it's less stellar in a tablet sense. Samsung's making the most out of the Galaxy Fold's large display by running up to three apps at once. The challenge there is making sure that Android apps play nicely with the Galaxy Fold's variable screen sizes, something that isn't even always the case for regular Android smartphones.
The Galaxy Fold is the very definition of a "version 1.0" product but there's an awful lot about it conceptually that makes a lot of sense.
It's not the next big thing, but a potential stepping stone on the way to that next big thing, which is the properly converged mix of smartphone, tablet and laptop. That's clearly why Samsung announced the Galaxy Fold when it did, because it knows MWC 2019 kicks off next week, with competitor brands lining up their folding phone reveals there.
The smartphone market is very mature indeed. There's an aspirational market that will always want the flashiest new premium handset and be willing to pay for it, but the majority market will do just fine on a mid-range or even a budget handset.
Outside of photography, mid-range phones like the Nokia 7.1 will do just about everything you'd need right now at an entirely affordable price point.
Nokia's HDR-ready Nokia 7.1
The Nokia 7.1 offers a superior display along with the power of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 636.
Smartphones are just mini computers in your pocket, but nobody treats them that way. We've gone from weird experiments like the Motorola Atrix all the way through to Samsung's own DeX platform, but nobody's really cracked the smartphone-as-laptop-replacement story just yet. No, not even Apple with the iPad Pro.
It's rather telling that while Samsung was happy to talk up the Galaxy Fold, announce some key specifications and a price point, it didn't (so I've been told) have models on the launch show floor for the journalists invited to actually test out. Sure, it wanted them hyped up about the Galaxy S10+ instead, but that's interesting in itself.
It suggests that it's still refining the Galaxy Fold. It's not quite confident enough to let them out into the wild where the tech journalist community can assess them independently.
Without a doubt, there will be software improvements and enhancements before that April 26 launch date, and there could well be a smoothing of the production process as well. Samsung knows that it's working on the first model, and that's rarely the model you'll buy.
It's not onto the next big thing, in other words, but on a journey in the right direction. I'm genuinely curious about the Samsung Galaxy Fold, but I suspect the phone I'll actually be laying down money for will be the Samsung Galaxy Fold 3 or 4 instead. What's more, if Samsung can get it right, that might be the convergence point where it's the only computer I actually need.