Mobile World Congress 2019: the advent of foldable phones?

I am literally just back from a whistle-stop trip to Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona.  By “literally” I mean  other than putting the washing on – this is my first task.

For those that do not know the show, it is a festival of all things mobile – from handsets to infrastructure and advertising to fraud.  It even featured a self-propelling lawn mower that can be controlled by voice (think “Alexa, mow the grass”).

The foldable screen debate

The biggest topic of conversation was foldable screens.  Samsung and Huawei took turns to outdo each other over who had the best version, with the collective jury largely siding with Huawei.

What nobody seemed to ask was “what will we use a foldable screen for?” or even “what can this foldable screen enable me to do that I couldn’t do before?”  The most sensible answer seemed to be that it would enable a hybrid of a phone and tablet to exist in your pocket.  You get a nice big screen when you need it and a smaller one when you don’t.  This comes with a hefty price tag of at least €2000 so who knows how many people will be happy to swallow that, so soon after the first €1000 device.

A stagnating industry?

Some journalists have argued that foldable phones are a good thing because they could give the mobile industry new drive.  I understand the sentiment.  Every device looks and functions in such a similar way, meaning that the consumer is left scratching their head about what to buy.  But this is also the sign of a maturing market.

Mass adoption of phones took place in the 90s – twenty years’ later you would expect the industry to have reached a point of maturity.  The mobile industry seems desperate not to lose its youth, even though it should be settling down and thinking about paying off the mortgage at its age.  It still wants to bombard us with new products, I suspect to keep feeding the beast that now generates trillions in revenue and employs millions.

But just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean we should.  The mobile industry is littered with “next big things” that have not materialised.  Smartwatches were supposed to be the new frontier at one point and despite morphing into fitness devices, they are far from ubiquitous.  By now we were supposed to be using our phones to pay for everything, but it is still rare to see people doing this.

So, I will treat foldable screens with scepticism for a while yet.  This may be the template for phones of the future but until there is a clear and obvious benefit, combined with a robust enough solution to survive daily use, my €2000 is staying in my pocket.