Flip phone, we almost did not know you.
Samsung Electronics on Wednesday offered a look at a future phone that unfolds like a book to reveal a 7.3-inch screen inside. Part pocket sized flip phone, part tablet, it is the most interesting idea that I have seen in smartphone design for years.
You have to see it to believe it – and unfortunately we have only got a tease. We consider a smartphone screen as an inflexible piece of glass that is limited by the size of the device itself. But the Infinity Flex Display from Samsung collapses, unfolds and folds again to pack it in smaller format.
This origami screen is on its way to a major phone launch, but Samsung did not 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 hope of pursuing app-makers to create experiences that benefit from this.
In an interview, the CEO of Samsung's mobile division, DJ Koh, told me that the flip-up phone is not a gimmick. "In terms of productivity, a bigger screen is always better," he said. "If we were to make a much larger screen than the Note, it would become a tablet, so why not think of folding? We started this simple idea three or four years ago."
When folded, the device has a screen on the front. When the screen is open, it is flat – with a small fold – to show a widescreen version of the app that was previously executed on the front.
How could they fold the screen flat? Koh said that Samsung had years of flexible OLED screens, but that they have been repaired behind glass. The inner screen of the folding telephone uses a different kind of composite transparent polymer material that can withstand the opening or closing of at least 300,000 times. We will have to see how it actually works.
It is high time for something new in phones. Samsung helped to create the trend of the big phone that has become the standard with devices such as Apple's iPhone XS Max. But in the industry, smartphone design was more about step-by-step improvements than bold new ideas – and consumers, not surprising, have been waiting longer and longer to upgrade.
The Chinese telecom giant Huawei has also plagued that it is working on a folding phone that can replace a computer.
What are we going to do with that big screen? Koh has some ideas – like playing games, watching video and multitask with up to three open apps – but realizes that Samsung needs software and user experience to make the new type of phone useful before it goes on sale. "We can not let it happen alone," he said.
Samsung has also sought help with Google, whose Android software supports the phone and needs to be adjusted to take advantage of it. "There are many challenges that we have to overcome together," said Koh.
The collaborative approach also makes Samsung different from Apple, which usually keeps unfinished new technologies in the wraps. "It's a blank sign to make something together," said Justin Denison, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America.