Up until now they’ve been like Nigel Tufnel’s guitar—you can’t touch it and maybe you shouldn’t even look at it. But after a coming-out party at Mobile World Congress today, the foldable phone has been touched by members of the press. The Verge’s Vlad Savov got his hands on the Huawei Mate X:
The hands-on experience with this device confirmed and deepened all the feelings I had about it already: it’s a polished, refined physical design that gets us closest to the ideal of a foldable with minimal compromises. There are still huge questions about what the software UX will be like, how durable and scratch-resistant that wraparound display will be over the long term, and how long the battery will last if you use this 5G tablet to its fullest.
As Savov indicates, there are a lot of questions about this product category. Once these products ship, we’ll start to get answers. Is Huawei’s screen-on-outside approach superior to Samsung’s approach, which places a separate screen on the outside and the foldable screen on the inside? How should the hinges feel? How scratchable is the plastic screen? What design feels best in the hand? What’s more important, folded-out mode or folded-in mode?
Myke Hurley and I discussed a lot of this on today’s episode of Upgrade. And I made the point that we don’t really know if a large group of consumers are demanding a foldable phone—these products exist because we can make foldable OLED displays, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that we must make them. We may not know where the successful ecological niches are for products like this for some time yet. And of course, as always, there’s Apple—which has been experimenting with foldable-device designs internally for years, but has shown no sign of being convinced it’s hit on a product good enough to sell to the public.
The early, awkward phase of new technology is always fun to watch. In a year or two we will look back on these initial designs and groan at the awfulness of them, but right at this moment they’re like science fiction turned into reality. The only way to find out where this is all going is to keep watching.