Foldable devices are hyped as the next step in mobile phones, but that may not be the case. Instead, foldables may be the next step for tablets, and they could succeed where tablets have failed.
Let’s Face It; Foldable Phones Are Tablets
What’s a foldable phone’s selling point? Is it the plastic screen, the fragile design, the $2,000 price tag, or the tablet-sized inner screen?
You already know the answer. Foldables like the Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X are exciting because of their massive screens. Their fragility and flaws would be unacceptable from even a $300 phone, but people are willing to pay a few grand for a tablet that can fit in their pocket.
Our obsession with devices like the Galaxy Fold is very telling. It shows that, while tablets are technically considered “portable” devices, they’re not really portable enough for us to be happy with them. After all, people hardly care about clamshell-styled foldables (like the Razr 4). They only care about the foldables that are technically tablets.
Foldables May Succeed Where Tablets Have Failed
In the original 2010 iPad announcement, Steve Jobs makes it clear that the iPad isn’t just a big iPod or a small laptop. But he doesn’t seem too confident in how the iPad should actually be used. He says that its “the best way” to browse the New York Times, read books, play games, or reply to emails. He even (reluctantly) suggests docking the iPad on a peripheral keyboard (in vertical orientation) after spending an hour talking about how the tablet is a “third” device separate from laptops and phones.
In other words, the original iPad presentation is precisely like every tablet presentation that’s come after it. Manufacturers have no idea how to sell these devices.
Don’t get us wrong; we like tablets. But from a business perspective, how do you encourage smartphone-owning customers to pay $300+ for a portable device that doesn’t (always) have a mobile connection, doesn’t fit in a pocket, runs iOS or Android, and doesn’t work with professional software?
A tablet isn’t a necessity, and tablets can’t replace the devices that are necessary for your life. But foldables may change things. Foldables, with their large screens and portable form factors, could be more practical and usable than phones or laptops. They could actually occupy that “third” space that Steve Jobs talked about in 2010, or they could eliminate your need to have multiple devices in the first place.
Foldables May Become Popular Laptop Alternatives
Companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung like to advertise their tablets as laptop alternatives. The idea is that these thin, powerful tablets are more convenient than your laptop, and they’re full of professional software that can stand-in for a “real” computer.
But let’s be honest, these laptop-replacing tablets aren’t that much more convenient than your average laptop. Keyboards and kickstands can double the size of some tablets, and these peripherals are rarely as reliable or comfortable as they should be. Also, tablet manufacturers seem to intentionally keep tablet software from advancing (after ten years, the iPad finally works with a mouse). This is possibly to prevent their tablets from cannibalizing laptop sales.
But people want to replace their laptops with reliable tablets, and the foldable gimmick may push people to make the leap. It’s hard to say no to a laptop-alternative that fits in your pocket, even if it has underpowered software or a lackluster keyboard. It’s also possible that these foldables could be docked to external monitors and be used like desktop computers, which would eliminate your need to have anything other than a foldable (Samsung is going this direction with its DeX mobile desktop platform, which will be available on the Galaxy Fold).
Tablet Gaming Will Be Fully Portable
Phone and tablet games dominate the worldwide gaming market, but tablet gaming isn’t nearly as popular as it could be. Again, this is because smartphones are more portable than tablets. Why would you buy or use an iPad as a mobile game console when you can play the same games on the iPhone that you always carry around anyway?
You know where this is going. Foldables may finally turn tablets into serious portable gaming consoles. A pocketable 12″ gaming device makes much more sense than a small phone or bulky tablet. It even makes more sense than a console like the Nintendo Switch, which is basically just a tablet with analog sticks.
Of course, foldable manufacturers will need to market their devices toward gamers. They’ll need to make sure that foldables are powerful enough to play games, and that peripheral controllers can be used with foldables without adding excess pocket-bulk. Otherwise, foldables won’t appeal to adult gamers, and they’ll be too expensive for children to use.
Regular Tablets Will Get Cheaper
Foldables are stuck in the $1,500 to $2,000 price range right now, and that’s sure to change in just a few years. But what will happen to regular tablets when foldables reach the sub $1,000 price range?
While $1,000 isn’t a great price for a tablet, we know from experience that people are willing to pay $1,000 for a phone. Once foldables reach this price, they’ll start to cannibalize traditional phone and tablet sales, which puts manufacturers in a tricky position. How do you sell regular tablets when everybody has a foldable in their pocket?
Well, manufacturers will have to make regular tablets cheaper or more powerful than foldables. There isn’t another answer. This change will probably push regular tablets into ubiquity (for at-home entertainment), and it may encourage manufacturers to sell regular tablets as serious laptop replacements, with better software, keyboards, and kickstands.
Whether you love or hate foldable phones, you have to admit that they’re an important step for mobile devices. And while they may not cause a massive shift in the cellphone market, they’re sure to help tablets evolve into something more portable, practical, and necessary.