Is the Foldable Smartphone Trend Legit or Just a Play to Our Nostalgia?

The Cosmo Communicator wants to chart a new course.

The era of the foldable phone may have already arrived. While rumors swirl that Samsung is about to launch its own foldable Galaxy, a foldable phone called the Cosmo Communicator smashed its funding target on Tuesday in just four hours. The developers of the phone, Planet Computers, declared they are “overwhelmed with the response and messages of support.”

For a phone that echoes designs from yesteryear, the Cosmo may seem a baffling success. It has a two-inch touchscreen on the exterior that flips open to reveal a QWERTY keyboard and six-inch touchscreen. It resembles the older T-Mobile Sidekick and Nokia Communicator in many respects, but its ability to multi-boot into Debian Linux and regular Android operating systems place it more in the domain of computer geek favorites like the GPD Win. These designs and others are challenging perceptions of what a phone should look like, in a risky bid to make them even more useful than they are today. In the case of Cosmo, its developers are trying to replace your laptop, that giant machine with a full-size keyboard and around 13 inches of screen.

Cosmo’s runaway campaign comes as smartphone makers are starting to spread their wings again and rethink the iPhone-style shape that’s dominated phones for the past decade — known in the industry as the “candybar” form factor. Beyond the Cosmo, Samsung debuted the Infinity Flex Display earlier this week as a vision of what a future smartphone may look like. The Android-running phones can display up to three apps at once on the inside screen. Unfortunately, it did not release any more information about any potential smartphones using the display.

Before the iPhone in 2007, the market was rife with all manner of exotic layouts, like the Motorola Razr flip phone and the Sony Ericsson Walkman with flip-away music buttons. Nokia became something of a meme as it produced wild designs like the 3600 circular button phone, N-Gage “taco” phone, and the N93 that sort of flipped into a mini camcorder:

Nokia n93-1
Hmm...

The difference from before and after the iPhone was so pronounced it became a meme:

The iPhone has retained a very similar shape since its initial launch. The screen has ballooned from 3.5 inches to 6.5 inches, it’s dropped the home button in favor of gestures, and it’s built up more capabilities thanks to faster processors. At its heart, though, it still follows Steve Jobs’ basic philosophy: smartphones with buttons are bad because once you ship it, you can’t change the buttons. The iPhone is a blank slate, ready to host app makers’ creations. A bigger canvas means more space to express these ideas. But a screen can only get so big before it starts becoming harder to use.

Samsung and Planet Computers are not the only ones pursuing this line of thought. Little-known California tech firm Royole unveiled its FlexPai phone in China last month with a four-inch OELD screen, folding out into a 7.8-inch tablet. It has a gap similar to the Microsoft Surface Book, but that didn’t stop Inverse from coming away impressed by the latter device. Royole claims the device can be folded and unfolded 200,000 times, and it uses a Snapdragon 8150 paired with a 3,800 mAh battery to power a dual-lens camera packing f/1.8 aperture and a 16-megapixel sensor. Unfortunately, it seems China-bound for now.

The Cosmo launch comes soon after the Gemini, a PDA that attracted warm responses when it was showcased at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in January. The follow-up has a Mediatek P70 eight-core processor, six gigabytes of RAM and 128GB of storage, and a 4,220 mAh battery. Cosmo bills itself as “a true all-in-one replacement for both your mobile phone and your laptop,” with a price of $799. Unfortunately, repeated requests for comment by Inverse were left unreturned.

These companies are pursuing a vision of computing that could prove obsolete in the coming years. As the developer and writer Paul Ford recently pointed out personal computing is heading in a direction where “computers won’t matter any more.”

“That’s because they’ll be everywhere — small and cheap embedded in everything. And all the little rituals I do to get through my day will be unnecessary — like swiping a MetroCard or buzzing into the office. I might still use a desktop computer, but mostly I’ll ask my earbuds to play music, and those earbuds will also serve as a wallet,” he told NYMag. “Or maybe I like carrying a wallet, that’s fine, too — it’ll have a little screen on it. My shoes will talk to my earbuds and the song will speed up if I walk faster. I’ll be just a little walking cloud platform with lots of hard drive space, all talking to the internet.”

Perhaps the reason why phone designs became so boring in the first place is because so many other means of interaction became commonplace too. Why do I need a bigger screen for choosing music if I can just ask my phone using Siri to choose a song? The multiplicity of ways users can achieve a task with their phones may mean that the form factor has become secondary.

It remains to be seen whether these attempts at redesigning the phone prove a success. But with some critics crying out for smaller phones, a tradeoff that could make them less useful on the go, foldable phones could retain useability for longer sessions while making them more manageable for one-handed use.

That is until Apple’s augmented reality glasses make this whole conversation obsolete.

Email the author: mike.brown@inverse.com

Media via Wikimedia / Affemitwaffe~commonswiki, Samsung