The Folding Smartphone Is Coming, but Developers Are in the Dark

A few years ago, the folding smartphone was an interesting proof-of-concept. Now it’s just around the corner, and we’re not entirely sure if it’s a good idea.

The Wall Street Journal reports Motorola is set to refresh its infamous RAZR phone as a folding-screen smartphone. If the report is accurate, the device may set you back $1,500, and could see release as early as February as a Verizon exclusive.

Meanwhile, The Verge reports that Microsoft is working diligently behind the scenes to bring Windows support to foldable devices. From the report:

Sources familiar with Microsoft’s plans tell The Verge that the software maker is making foldable devices and dual-screen hardware a big investment area for both Windows and Surface. This investment includes adapting Windows itself and its many built-in apps to work across foldable displays and devices with dual screens.

As this report goes on to note, Microsoft is preparing its C-Shell and Core OS for foldable devices, which is the chosen method for getting Windows up and running on a wider range of hardware. A foldable display is unique; it means Windows would have to migrate seamlessly between two screen sizes on the same device, and recognize which “form-factor” (i.e., phone or tablet size) was active.

Google is also out in front of foldable smartphones. At the Android Developer Summit late last year, Vice President of Engineering Dave Burke vowed support for folding-screen devices. The aim is to ‘officially’ support folding screens, so Android OEMs such as Samsung or – well, Motorola – don’t invent their own software. It’s worth noting that Samsung is still teasing a folding-screen device, which is a good indication it’s coming at some point.

Folding Smartphone
No thanks.

Why a Folding Smartphone Does – and Doesn’t – Matter for Devs

A folding-screen device will almost certainly demand that apps such as Instagram support multiple screen sizes and configurations. Otherwise, such apps risk becoming the also-rans when these devices are in ‘tablet’ mode, overtaken by optimized competitors. That might present developers with some real challenges with regard to screen size and UX.

And we’re still not sure if these folding phones/tablets work in phone-landscape mode, which would also mean tablet-portrait mode, which then means you might have to support phone-landscape mode that can also become a split-screen with a tablet orientation that has two phone-landscape apps running. Yikes.

Google says it’s working with existing OEM partners on an API for folding screens, and is – for now – pointing developers to Android’s Screen Continuity API as a means of supporting morphing devices. This API manages the portrait-to-landscape switches, and Android apps for Chrome OS.

But therein lies the rub. Android apps on Chrome OS are mostly clunky, windowed garbage. If we extend that poor performance to folding screens with at least 16 different modes between tablet, phone, and a mix of the two – it’s scary. And these devices are possibly a month or two away, if you believe the rumors.

Save for Android’s “just use the API we already have, it’s fine” attitude, nobody else seems to have an interest in making developers aware of how folding smartphones (err, tablets?) will work. Microsoft hasn’t announced anything, but we’re not even sure if Windows apps will work on smaller screens. It recently re-wrote much of Office in JavaScript, so we’re guessing there could be some Office 365 Progressive Web Apps for folding displays coming (cue terrible airhorn noise).

Apple seems in the weeds on its own projects (where is AirPower?!), and there’s zero indication it will invest in folding iPhones/iPads. Which may be the smartest move. With augmented reality (AR) the acknowledged heir apparent to screens, folding smartphones feel almost like a last-ditch effort for those unprepared companies.

All that being said, folding smartphones might enjoy some early-adopter noise as we look for the things that will truly define tomorrow’s mobile tech. Although AR seems like the future, the platform is best realized with heads-up displays, and we haven’t seen one that will make AR an everyday utility. Perhaps once that headwear arrives, it will work in concert with smartphones and birth some sort of über-Westworld folding-phone/AR hell-scape that will bankrupt us all.

One Response to “The Folding Smartphone Is Coming, but Developers Are in the Dark”

  1. That is a gimick, and I would never buy one. The real ‘folding’ phone they need to make is of the design used in the TV series Earth: Final Conflict, where when you needed your screen, it pulled out from the side, unrolling from inside the main section of the case.