Foldable phones? No thanks

4 February 2019

Innovation is overrated.

The dictionary widget on my macOS Dashboard defines innovation as “a new method, idea, product, etc.” By that very vague definition, an innovation is essentially anything new. At all. Seriously. You could make anything new, and you’d be an innovator. Congratulations.

But newness is not inherently good, nor should it be idolized as such. Twenty-first-century consumerism would pose that we must kick the old ways of doing things to the curb and usher in whatever moneymaker lies beyond the horizon — and while that’s not necessarily bad, and imaginative ruts are to be avoided, sometimes the new isn’t always as awesome as it’s cracked up to be.

Some examples of this can be found in the ever-fluctuating modern technology market, where new ideas materialize weekly. Hole-punched displays, of questionable value as compared to notches of “old” (by which I mean less than two years ago), have been heralded immediately as the better smartphone design without further justification than their originality. The latest generation of MacBook keyboard is almost universally considered inferior to its more tactile predecessor, myriad reliability issues aside. Hardly anything presented at CES last month was more than a gimmick.

The latest trend to somersault into the tech community’s spotlight has been foldable phones (tablets)? I mean, come on, it’s a bulletproof pitch. Who doesn’t want to revert to the decades-old form factor we thought we had all escaped in 2007?

Okay, joking aside, there are some real reasons people cite for why foldables could make sense. That I wrote this article in the first place may suggest to you that I don’t buy into those reasons.

The general premise of the foldable is that it blends the smartphone and tablet form factors into a single device. Instead of having a small screen that you use for some things, and a larger screen that you use for others, why not just have a small display that folds out into a bigger one when necessary?

It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. But the problem is simple: the aspect ratios of smartphones and tablets are less than ideal for a foldable mashup of the two. Imagine two of your smartphone screens lined up side-by-side, as though your phone had unfurled itself into a tablet twice the size. As I considered this, an issue became apparent to me. It might be hard to visualize, so here’s the math.

The iPhone 6, 6S, 7, and 8 have a 16:9 display aspect ratio. Two 16:9 screens placed next to each other add up to a 16:18 ratio (the longer side maintains its length, but the shorter side doubles). 16:18 is way too close to a square to be valuable in any use cases for which foldables are being prematurely praised. Gaming? Doesn’t work too well on a square. Productivity? Same story. We have rectangular phones and tablets for a reason: rectangles offer more utility than squares. Even if you could manage with an almost-square tablet, it wouldn’t be as good as a bespoke tablet.

Over the past few years, smartphones have gotten longer and taller aspect ratios. The iPhone X and XS, for example, have ratios of 19.5:9. Turns out, those aren’t any better when unfolded into a tablet; they result in 19.5:18 ratios, even closer to a square.

So, yeah. If you took a good smartphone screen and doubled its width, you’d have a terrible tablet. Conversely, cutting a good tablet screen in two will give you a terrible phone. There’s no good way to do foldables; they’re neither good phones nor good tablets.

Is there, then, a solution to the problem foldables try to address — that of the constraints of handheld computer displays? We can only make our phones so big, and we can only make our tablets so small. Merging the two results in a compromise of both of their merits.

As it turns out, I think there’s a better way to break out of the boxes of, well, physical devices: AR glasses.

Augmented reality headsets are still a far cry from being a mass-market reality. Even if Apple proves the rumors right and launches its presumptively named Glasses as early as 2020, it will take some time for the product and its competitors to gain traction in a smartphone-entrenched world. Inevitable though their rise may be, it could turn out to be a slow one.

But please entertain with me the idea of these theoretical Apple Glasses. Their displays encompass your entire field of view, so information can be presented on any surface in sight. You can summon a virtual “screen” of whatever aspect ratio you want, placing it in your hand or on your desk or on a wall. Simply put, a foldable device would be meaningless; added screen area could be simulated rather than relying on tedious physical transformations.

Yes, foldables are going to launch in the real world before Apple Glasses do. All I’m saying is that the Glasses will be a much better solution to the same problem.