It’s finally here! Samsung’s folding-screen phone, the Next Big Thing that will ignite the imaginations and empty wallets all over the smartphone world! Or, more probably, not.
The Galaxy Fold is an aspirational device, like a flagship supercar or an ultra-rare luxury watch. It’s the phone you drool over, but not the one you buy. Samsung knows this—it’s hard to imagine that they don’t, with a price tag that makes even Apple’s most expensive iPhone look cheap by comparison. And they’re fine with it. Because the Galaxy Fold is a massive gamble from one of the only phone manufacturers that can make it. And however this product cycle plays out, Samsung wins.
Buying the Mustang
Samsung gave the Galaxy Fold pride of place in its pre-Mobile World Congress press event, with both the event’s tagline and the lead position secured for the daring new design. But it isn’t the one that Samsung is actually invested in: that is, obviously, the Galaxy S10. Look no further than the presenters if you need evidence.
The Galaxy Fold was introduced by a vice president of the marketing department. But when Samsung CEO DJ Koh came out, brandishing a brief demo of the Galaxy Fold hardware, it was the Galaxy S10+ that he personally introduced.
That’s because, this year as every year, Samsung’s going to sell a hell of a lot of Galaxy S phones. Even with the alarming price increases (roughly in step with Samsung’s only major competitor, Apple), carrier promotions and financing options will ease the financial pain of that cool new model. But even someone who might be able to justify a $1000 hit to their budget would be reticent to double it for the Fold.
Want more evidence? The Fold uses a tiny (by modern standards) 4.6-inch front screen, presumably so small on such a large device because Samsung needed every cubic millimeter to cram in other hardware around that interior hinge and massive screen. And even so, the Galaxy Fold isn’t getting the best of Samsung’s newest doohickeys, aside from its massive interior screen.
Ultrasonic fingerprint reader integrated into the screen? Nope, it has a side-mounted reader, like a phone from eight years ago. Reverse wireless charging that can give your Galaxy Buds a boost? Nope, not mentioned at all. While the S10 has a maximum of a terabyte of onboard storage, the Galaxy Fold is limited to 512GB, despite a massive 12GB of RAM. The phone doesn’t even get the Galaxy S10’s signature new feature, the “hole punch” for the camera—the interior screen just uses a massive cutout for its dual cameras.
So what does all of this mean? It means that Samsung isn’t concerned with making the Galaxy Fold the be-all, end-all smartphone in every possible measure. Because it doesn’t need to be. The S10+ plus is the phone they’re marketing to enthusiasts, to people who want something on par with (or better than) the latest iPhone or Pixel. By contrast, the Galaxy Fold is a classic aspirational product: the one you want on everyone’s mind, even if no one can afford it. Or even justify it.
Think about this in terms of cars. If you’re a car buff, you know about the Ford GT, the Dodge Viper, the Nissan “Skyline” GT-R. Those are the cars you drool over, maybe even take a test drive of the dealership’s loaner if you’re feeling daring. But even if you could scrape together the monthly payments, you know you’d regret it the first time you tried to actually put a full load of groceries in the trunk, or the third time you filled up the gas tank in a week.
If you want something fun but at least somewhat sane, you buy the Mustang, or the Challenger, or (perish the thought) the Maxima sedan. The supercar is the one in the dealer window that gets you in the building. But it’s not the one you’re actually going to buy.
So it is with the Galaxy Fold. This will be Samsung’s headline device in 2019, the one you’ll see in multiple commercials around September and October to get you thinking about how innovative and futuristic the brand is. And it’ll work: you won’t see anything like it for quite a while. But with a price tag basically twice that of a standard high-end phone, a thickness that will barely slip into your pocket, and the dubious utilitarian upside of a small Android-powered tablet, Samsung knows you’re not actually going to buy one.
The Galaxy Fold is for Bragging Rights
With the smartphone market sagging and profits down as users either balk at high prices or simply keep their older phones longer, there are only two companies that can make phones as outrageous and advanced as the Fold right now. Apple didn’t, because that’s not how Apple operates. Apple, for all its boasts of innovation and genius, is conservative: it has gentle, stable evolution of hardware. And Samsung did make the Fold—because that’s not how Apple operates.
Samsung, with its market leading position by volume and its relative safety, can afford to make the Fold, even knowing it’s not going to be the money-maker that the S10 will. And it’s the only player in the Android game that can. OnePlus can’t blow hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development for a new form factor. Neither can Samsung’s in-country rival LG, or even the quickly-rising Chinese brands like Huawei and Xiaomi gaining huge profits on a growing market. Google could probably afford it, but like Apple, they’re relatively conservative in terms of pure hardware.
Samsung isn’t conservative. As yesterday’s presentation pointed out, they bet big on big phones with the original Galaxy Note, and started a trend that even Apple followed before too long. They’ve pushed now-standard features like AMOLED displays, wireless charging, and water-resistant bodies long before it was clear that there would be a demand for them. Samsung takes the risk. And though it doesn’t always pan out—how long did it take the company to finally admit that premium Android tablets weren’t going to come back to life?—it does mean they deserve the credit.
So imagine that the Fold will flop, and that Samsung is aware that this is a strong possibility. Say the Fold doesn’t sell a tenth of the units that this year’s Galaxy S and Note models do. That’s okay. Even if the Fold is a critical and commercial failure, it’s worth the money to maintain Samsung’s position as a purveyor of daring design (at least by the standards of its closest competitors). Having that dazzling shot of the phone unfolding in a season’s worth of NFL commercials will be worth every penny spent bringing the product to market.
This Will Go One of Two Ways
But let’s assume for a moment that the Galaxy Fold does succeed. If it does, a remarkable conjunction of circumstances will need to occur.
First, Samsung needs to absolutely nail the hardware. For a first-gen product in a brand new form factor, this seems unlikely. For all of Samsung’s boasting of “ten years of Galaxy S” at the presentation, the first two generations of Galaxy S phones were forgettable at best, and just plain awful at worst.
Remember Google’s first forays into Android-powered phones, Microsoft’s original Surface, or even the first-gen iPhone with its 2G connection? Big changes mean big risks, and usually big mistakes. With that huge polymer-based display and oddly-shaped AMOLED screens, I doubt Samsung is even making these things at anything approaching its normal volume—note that it’s releasing six weeks after the Galaxy S10 trio.
If Samsung can pull a rabbit out of a hat there, they’ll also need to nail the software. This seems a little more likely, as they have the help of Google working with the latest versions of Android to handle multiple screens and folding screens elegantly. The demonstrations were certainly impressive, with apps transitioning seamlessly between two screens and working in a multi-panel interface. But don’t forget that they’ll also need developers, both of major apps like Facebook and Spotify and the smaller, more personal apps that users rely on, to take notice.
And lastly, Samsung would need consumers to get excited in a big, big way. With a starting price of $1980, even more for the promised 5G version, Samsung’s marketing department would need a miracle worthy of an Old Testament prophet in order to get buyers lining up around the block for the Galaxy Fold.
There was nothing in yesterday’s demo that showed why a very large but somewhat clunky screen, paired to a much smaller and less appealing one that you’d be using a lot of the time, would be worth two or three times the price of the phones we’re already comfortable with. Hey, Samsung: my phone already plays Netflix and works with Google Maps, and using three apps at once instead of “just” two isn’t worth a down payment on a car.
Even in the Unpacked presentation, the company positioned the Galaxy Fold as a “luxury” device without any hesitation. And that might win it a few fans: some who can afford it will certainly want it just for the “wow” factor that made phones like the original Motorola RAZR stand out. With its gratuitous specs and unique design, it certainly has a better claim to true luxury status than the gaudy monstrosities churned out by Vertu and Goldvish. But can you see the average buyer who has four phones to buy on a family plan shelling out for even one? Not a chance.
But again, let’s assume that all these unlikely stars align, and Samsung can’t make Galaxy Folds fast enough to sate consumer demand. If that actually happens, Samsung will know it has a winner, and pour money into making the folding tech more affordable and attainable. Within two to three years, you’ll see folding Galaxy-branded phones available in price points that are easier to swallow, and competitors will scramble to reverse engineer that hinge and polymer screen for even cheaper designs.
That would be nice. I think I’d love a world where phones worthy of a sci-fi prop house were commonplace. But like Dick Tracy’s radio watch and the transparent computer screens in every single science fiction movie, the reality seems far less practical than more conventional designs. The far, far more likely scenario is that Samsung sells a few thousand of these phones, to people with enough curiosity and disposable income to check them out, and then wows us with some other eye-catching feature in a year or two.
And that’s okay! If the Galaxy Fold ends up in the dustbin of phone history next to designs like the Nokia N-Gage or the Kyocera Echo, it still will have served its purpose in the present: making Samsung look cool. And whatever else the Galaxy Fold is—status symbol, pipe dream, corporate folly—it’s certainly cool. In a smartphone market where phones are starting to become indistinguishable in a sea of glass slabs, the very fact that the Galaxy Fold has a Samsung logo on it will make it worth every penny spent to make it real.