Flip phone, we hardly knew ye.
Samsung Electronics on Wednesday offered a peek at a future phone that unfolds like a book to reveal a 7.3-inch screen inside. Part pocket-size flip phone, part tablet, it’s the most interesting idea I’ve seen in smartphone design for years.
You have to see it to believe it — and unfortunately we only got a tease. We think of a smartphone screen as a rigid piece of glass that’s limited by the size of the device itself. But Samsung’s Infinity Flex Display folds, unfolds and refolds to pack up into a smaller form.
This origami screen is bound for a big phone launch, but Samsung didn’t offer a name, price or even a timeline other than 2019. The Korean electronics giant showed the new display technology at its annual San Francisco developer conference in the hopes of wooing app makers to create experiences that take advantage of it.
In an interview, the CEO of Samsung’s mobile division, DJ Koh, told me the folding phone is no gimmick. “In terms of productivity, always a bigger screen is better,” he said. “If we made a much bigger screen than the Note, then it would become a tablet. So why don’t we think about folding? We started from this simple idea three or four years ago.”
Folded up, the device has a screen on its front. When opened, the interior screen lays flat — with little hint of a crease — to show a widescreen version of whatever app had been previously running on the front.
How’d they make the screen fold flat? Koh said Samsung has had bendable OLED screens for years, but they’ve been fixed behind glass. The folding phone’s interior screen uses a different kind of composite polymer transparent material that can withstand being opened or closed at least 300,000 times. We’ll have to see how it wears in real-world use.
It’s about time for something new in phones. Samsung helped create the big-phone trend that’s become the standard with devices such as Apple’s iPhone XS Max. But across the industry, smartphone designs have been more about incremental improvements than bold new ideas — and consumers, unsurprisingly, have waited longer and longer to upgrade.
Chinese telecom giant Huawei has also teased that it is working on a folding phone that could replace a computer.
What will we do with that big screen? Koh has a few ideas — such as play games, watch video and multitask with up to three open apps — but realizes Samsung needs software and user experience help make the new kind of phone useful before it goes on sale. “We cannot make it happen on our own,” he said.
Samsung also sought help from Google, whose Android software powers the phone and will need to be tweaked to take advantage of it. “There’s lots of challenges we need to overcome together,” Koh said.
The collaborative approach also makes Samsung different from Apple, which usually keeps unfinished new technologies under wraps. “It’s a blank canvas for us to create something together,” said Justin Denison, a senior vice president for Samsung Electronics America.