Smartphones have become boring. And I don’t mean that in some kind of ultra-enthusiast, super geeky, and technical way. I mean that, for most people, smartphones are not an interesting, let alone exciting, thing. Most people look at buying a new smartphone like buying a new pair of running shoes: you read some reviews on a few blogs, you browse Zappos, maybe you even go down to a local athletic store and try some on. In the end, you buy some shoes, you keep them for a couple years (or longer, I’m not judging!), and you replace them when they seem worn out.
Smartphones are, in the broadest sense, a lot like a pair of tennis shoes. They’re a necessity in our lives, an expensive one—enough so to be worth thinking about before buying. They’re something we use a lot, something we rely on to perform a fairly demanding function, and something we expect to, eventually, replace with a very similar and perhaps very incrementally better iteration of themselves. As with smartphones, shoes have enthusiasts, too: Nike will happily sell you a $250 pair of running shoes that, as far as most of us are concerned, offer no meaningful benefit over a pair costing half that much. And Samsung will sell you a big, bulky folding smartphone that costs twice as much as normal phone which, for the vast majority of people, will provide no meaningful benefit over that normal phone.
I am not saying that the person who really wants that $250 pair of running shoes doesn’t exist. And I’m not saying the person who really wants a $2000 folding smartphone doesn’t exist, either. Of course they do. Pick a thing, and you can find someone who is extremely into it and who spends a significant portion of their income on that thing because it has come to define, in part, what they value and who they are as a person. And that’s fine! It’s your money, it’s your life, and it’s the stuff you’re interested in: go for it! But like those $250 shoes, that $2000 smartphone will never have a big audience. Because most people do consider how much money they spend on things, and a smartphone increasingly firmly falls into the category of necessities, rather than of luxuries.
Ten years ago, a smartphone wasn’t a necessity. You didn’t need an iPhone. Sure, some business-types like lawyers and executives could really justify the enhanced productivity a device like a BlackBerry or an iPhone enabled, but they were a tiny sliver of the larger cell phone market. Then, smartphones blew up: iPhones in the US, and Android for much of the rest of the world, exploded into popularity as their capabilities advanced so far and fast beyond what most previous mobile phones could offer that they were a transformative force in our society not seen since, I would argue, the mass-produced automobile. How we work, communicate, buy things, get places, answer questions, consume media, and a handful of other things radically changed because of the smartphone. It was a big deal! And rightly so. Twenty years ago, if you’d told me I’d have one tiny little slab of glass that could navigate me to a beach, order me a pizza, buy me toilet paper, manage my calendar, act as my personal camera/camcorder, music player, and I could watch stupid cat videos from anywhere in the world on it? I’d have thought you were describing something that was basically impossible. It’s easy to understand how such a massively consequential product could convince us all to shell out $500, $700, or even $1000 every two or three years to ensure we were making the most of it.
Folding smartphones are cool, interesting, and legitimately impressive technology. Folding smartphones, though, are no smartphone moment. For years, companies, analysts, and journalists have been searching for the next major evolutionary step that would follow the smartphone, or at least transform it. Folding has been perhaps the biggest idea we’ve metaphorically hitched our wagons to, and the industry has steadily fed us a slow drip of possibilities for the nascent and apparently very fragile technology involved. But no compelling argument has emerged actually explaining why foldables are the next step for the smartphone as a product. And they come at a time when, in many ways, we are becoming increasingly aware that the fetishization of upgrades and the overselling of annual “innovation” cycles is wearing thin. We are keeping our phones longer. We are demanding companies make them more usable over those longer lives, too. These are textbook symptoms of a durable good: a product we buy and expect to use day in and day out, and not replace until the cost of repair outweighs the cost of replacement, or there is a significant and compelling functional reason to do so.
Folding phones don’t appeal to any of these utilitarian concerns; they are strictly marketed on flash and exclusivity. They are about the new. When a person replacing a 3-year-old smartphone walks into a Verizon store and sees a $1500 Razr on a pedestal, they’re not going to think “well, clearly that is what I need.” They’re going to go look at the newest versions of the same Samsung or Apple phones they’ve looked at for the past decade, and they’re going to buy what, for most of us, is simply a replacement for a broken or worn out tool. This is one of the great fears of phone manufacturers: that their products are becoming undifferentiated commodities more sensitive to price than any earnest appeal to our desire for the shiny and the new. A smartphone is, for all intents and purposes, merely a tool enabling us to do the things we want and like to do with that smartphone. Those things are pretty concretely defined in 2019, and have changed little in the past four of five years. Most of us really do get what we want out of our phones. Folding smartphones trade affordability, established form factor, and durability to achieve marginal and—quite frankly—laughably nebulous gains in “productivity” and content consumption. In many senses, they are a solution in search of a problem.
I don’t doubt that we’ll see more folding phones in 2020, and I don’t doubt that, yes, they will get better. Perhaps they’ll even become a little less expensive, though I predict it won’t be by much. But foldables have a strong aura of trying to reinvent the wheel about them, of trying to New Coke the established smartphone secret formula we’ve all been very happy with for a solid decade now. And I think most people will see that for what it is: an attempt to squeeze more money out of ever-leerier customers. Perhaps a better way to get our attention would be not to try and convince us all that “don’t worry, there’s a great reason to spend even more money on phones now,” but instead convincing us that the phones we do buy will last longer and not end up in a landfill after a few short years. After all, a phone that lasts for five years sounds a lot more interesting than one that folds for two.