According to the global statistics source Statista.com, foldable smartphone screens will dominate the market in the near future. It is predicted that over 75 million foldable smartphone displays will be produced by 2025. Will the new mobile format change much for those creating digital solutions for mobiles? With this article, we look at foldable phone technologies and the challenges that foldable phones will bring for UX/UI Designers and Developers.
What can you read in this article?
- How has foldable phone technology evolved over the past decade?
- Is our current development process ready for these changes?
- How can we prepare for the upcoming new changes?
- What is changing from the UX/UI perspective?
- What is changing from the Developer’s perspective?
- Could foldable phones replace our current smartphones?
What are foldable smartphones?
Foldable phones are smartphones with a case and screen that fold up or roll up (usually in a defined manner). Then, when unfolding the smartphone, there is a larger screen that gives the user more functions. And when the device is folded, it is smaller, so it can easily fit into a pocket. In fact, it could be an innovation among mobile devices, as nothing has changed too much in the smartphone market over the last few years. The only changes were a larger screen size and improvements on the camera, battery and processor. All models were similar to the iPhones. The usage scenario and design of the smartphone itself remained the same.
How has foldable phone technology evolved over the years?
It might seem like a new idea, but if you go back to the origins of it, you might be very surprised. Work on the foldable device concept began even before 2008. The precursor to the idea was a black and white phone named Readius from Polimer Vision (the company that split from Phillips). It was the first device whose screen could be folded.
The next step was a futuristic concept of the future called Morph by Nokia. Do any of you remember this project? It was a vision of how a single phone could be used as a Bluetooth handset, tablet and watch.
Then, from 2011, more prototypes of foldable phones began to be developed. It was a prototype because the technology was so underdeveloped, and there was very little interest from normal users and nobody was producing it for sale. The first foldable smartphones were simply two phones joined side by side. Now this may even look a little comical to us. Such as this Echo model from Kyocera, where you can see that big plastic mechanism for folding the smartphone. In 2018 the Royale company managed to present a smartphone with a seamless folding screen. Indeed, the quality of this display was not perfect and the way the smartphone was folded was strange (this is because the smartphone was folded with the screen outwards).
The next year, in January, the CEO of Xiaomi shared a video of a prototype of a foldable smartphone. A month later at the Mobile World Congress, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Fold. The first model of Galaxy Fold released on the market was withdrawn after some time, because there was a lot of criticism about the screen quality. Samsung had to collect feedback and polish the technology.
In the same month, Huawei released its Mate X, and six months later in November Motorola introduced the Razr model. A year and a half later we had another model from Huawei, the Mate X2, which according to reviewers is already a pretty solid smartphone. A month later a new model from XIaomi Mi Mix Fold appeared on the market.
You may have a question, why are we talking about evolution and various foldable smartphone models? Well, because we want to show you how long ago work on this technology started. Even before 2008, companies were considering such solutions, only the technology wasn’t there yet to make it possible. The technology has been in development for years. Now all big corporations are including foldable phones to their smartphone line-up (Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Motorola, etc.). Moreover, Apple patented technology for a foldable phone in 2018.
Flexible screen technology for foldable phones
The most common screens for foldable smartphones are OLEDs. These screens are not made of glass, like most smartphones on the market, but of plastic. Despite appearances, OLED screens consider themselves eco-friendly because they are made from carbon and hydrogen. And the diodes of OLED screens do not contain so-called bad metals. The only disadvantage of an OLED screen is the poor scratch resistance. The US based company Corning is working on a flexible screen made of glass.
What differences are there between the smartphones we currently use and foldable smartphones?
Primarily, the larger screen area (this is especially the case for those devices which after unfolding resemble tablets). This gives you more options and increases the convenience of using your smartphone. You can use several applications at once – which means multitasking. When folded, the smartphone is about half the size, enabling you to keep a tablet in your pocket. In the case of the Galaxy Z Flip or the Motorola Razr, we have a very compact device that takes up very little space when folded. There are also new scenarios of using the smartphone.
What are the difficulties in designing apps/web pages for foldable phones?
So, above in the article, we’ve seen the changes that users of the new devices will notice. But what changes do designers and developers need to take into account when creating digital solutions for foldable smartphones?
- Smooth application transitions from folded to unfolded modes
- Different screen orientations
- The form factor of the application differs from traditional
- More tests of different scenarios in apps are needed
- Variety of screen sizes of foldable smartphones
- Smartphone companies have different ways/scenarios of folding smartphones
- Longer time and higher cost of software development
The first thing to take care of is smooth transitions in applications when folding and unfolding. Depending on the situation, the user will move from one state to another, rotating, unfolding and folding the phone. The second point is the form factor of the application, which cannot be fixed. The user will have the ability to open multiple apps at once, stretch and place apps on the screen as needed. Consequently, more attention needs to be paid to the responsiveness of the application. There are also new scenarios of using a smartphone that need to be taken into account. All this increases the cost and implementation time of solutions.
What is changing from a UX/UI designer’s perspective?
- More screens to design for
It’s not just about the responsiveness of the application. In different screen states various functions may be available for the user.
- One and two-handed apps
Typically we use a phone with one hand. With foldable phones, on the other hand, we’ll be using both when we unfold the smartphone. The location of the buttons therefore needs to be rethought so that users can use them comfortably and ergonomically.
- Multi window state
The main idea behind foldable smartphones is to give users more screen space and better multitasking. So with multitasking, you have to predict different scenarios of using the smartphone.
- Screen continuity
The transition from folded to unfolded state (and vice versa) for the app should be automatic and seamless. UX/UI Designers have to focus on thinking through app transitions.
- More user testing
Considering the variety of these changes and new scenarios, our applications will require more testing with users.
What are the challenges for the developers?
- You may not need to do anything else
If you write native apps and support tablet devices then maybe you do not have to change anything to get the desired effect, as your app should already be responsive, and if it is not then you can kill two birds with one stone. On the other hand, if you write cross-platform apps, then most likely they are already responsive, so you do not have to do anything special. Even if your app is responsive you might need to revisit some layouts as some foldables may have dimensions that you haven’t tested before, like the very narrow screen of the Galaxy Fold when it is collapsed.
- There are no standards yet
The biggest issue is the fact that the technology is still very fresh, and phone shapes aren’t established yet, and some devices may require additional specific settings to make them work. Take a Samsung Galaxy Z Flip for example, you would have to handle additional scenarios to support the small screen when it is folded and do it specifically for that one device which most likely has an ultra-low market share. That leads us in general to a simple calculation where you need to evaluate whether it is profitable for you to support those new formats, and same thing as with the tablets which have been there for some time already. If you go with it, the good news is that good practices, packages, solutions etc. are already here exactly because of tablets, so you do not have to reinvent the wheel.
- Slow adoption
Unluckily for the producers and end users, such novelties are rarely supported by devs and this doesn’t help them to gain traction. Most likely it will take years before support for foldables will be the new standard. Tablets have existed for many years, and yet even such brands like Instagram do not have a dedicated app when it would seem kind of logical to have one. There are many fresher things that have existed for 3-4 years and still are not being supported by the devs as standard, for example iPhone notches and the bottom navigation pill/bar should have a proper spacing from the rest of the interface, often called the Safe Area, whereas it is not there, even in the new apps by big companies, which is outrageous and unacceptable.
- For foldable smartphones to be more popular, prices have to be lower
- Maybe now our software solutions need to be more cross-platform
- It is unlikely to be a temporary trend and possibly in 5 years foldable smartphones will be a part of the market
- From a UX perspective, more and more attention will have to be paid to the context and usage scenarios of applications
- Learn about foldables from developer.android.com
- Explore apps on foldable phones by Samsung
- Interview: The Future is Foldable: Developing the Galaxy Fold’s App Ecosystem
- “Foldable Phones to Reach 30 Million Units by 2023” – report by Gartner
Artur Fijał – Senior Flutter Developer
Olga Mielkina – UX Designer