Foldables are nearly here. Should developers care?

After a few false starts, foldable phones are back in the news If the big tech sites are correct, the flagship ‘folders’ – along with some new models – are set to ship in the next few weeks. Should this concern app publishers?

Well, maybe. You never know which new handset innovation will make it to prime time. So it’s always worth paying attention.

So let’s recap where we are.

At the start of 2019, all the talk in handset circles (if we assume such circles exist) was of the folding phone. People were excited. Here was something genuinely new. Moreover, ‘new’ is what the industry badly needs right now.

Why? Because it’s 12 years after the iPhone dropped, and all handsets look the same: black rectangles with a touchscreen UI.

That’s it.

There is nothing else.

This lack of innovation – and the high quality of even mid-tier phones – has slowed down sales. Smartphone owners are keeping their devices for longer. Handset makers really need something new. Is the folding phone it?

Well, the honest answer is: we don’t know. None of the flagship folding devices have hit the market yet. The big one, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, was supposed to ship on April 25. It sold out on pre-order even at $2,000, but the launch date was canned due to technical issues with the screen. Recently the South Korean vendor announced their plans of launching a second foldable in early 2020.

Chinese tech giants Huawei, ZTE and Xiaomi also announced their own designs. They too got delayed. However, the Huawei Mate X (RRP $2,600!) is not expected until at least November.

Despite these teething problems, the phone manufacturers are still keen on the folding phone concept. The above devices will all ship. And every week brings rumors of more models. In the last few days, for example, there has been excited talk of Motorola reviving its iconic Razr brand in a folding form factor.

Of course, it’s not just phone makers who need to ponder the impact of the folding phone. Developers and publishers should consider it too. After all, the extra screen real estate offered by the form factor will pose some big questions when it comes to app design.

Let’s summarise them.

Screen continuity
A folding phone is two screens in one. For example, the Samsung Fold is a 4.6-inch screen that opens out into a 7.3-inch one. So users should be able to interact with the ‘regular’ display and open it up to double the size if they wish. When they do, the app should seamlessly transfer to the larger real estate.

Screen separation
As an alternative to the above, some app makers might see two screens as an opportunity to divide up the action. They could, for example, assign the core app content on one screen and a keyboard/notifications board on the other, which could be especially interesting for makers of communications apps.

Another complication of the two-screen issue is orientation. Developers might need to consider how to seamlessly make their apps go from portrait to landscape when the phone opens up.

The hinge
All the foldables announced so far have a crease in the middle. There’s no way around it, for now. If the hinge affects screen performance it could impact developers, who might have to locate essential features away from the center.

In time, more considerations will undoubtedly surface. Much depends on the success of the concept itself – and how uniform the phone designs become.

If all handset makers settle on one format (ie the same screen dimensions and, say, a display that is on the inside rather than the outside), this should make things easier. Uniformity will also mean developers can work to Google’s Android specifications rather than with multiple OEM SDKs. For now, Samsung has issued guidelines on its own developer site. Meanwhile, Google has also already prepared some resources on its Android Developer pages. It said it is “enhancing Android to take advantage of this new form factor with as little work as necessary.”

You should take a quick look at the above resources for an overview of the key technical considerations.

The future is nigh
Within a few months, the major foldable handsets should all be widely available on the market. Their arrival could start a new era in which consumers start to see smartphones in entirely new ways. With all the extra screen real estate, they might view them as more like tablets/laptops. They might also get used to the idea of running multiple apps simultaneously.

The possibilities and challenges will give developers lots to think about. Alternatively, foldables will flop, and we can all carry on as before…

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