See you on the flip-side: the return of the flip phone?

See you on the flip-side: the return of the flip phone?

Ever since Samsung released the Galaxy Fold in 2019, a debate has raged over whether flip and fold phones are the future of mobile technology. By 2025, will we all have an elegant flip phone in our pocket? Or is the technology a flash in the pan?

Today, flip and fold phones are still a relatively niche market. Of the 1.5 billion smartphones sold globally in 2021, only 7 million were foldables (Wired). However, that figure (and foldable’s total market share) is growing quickly. Foldable sales in 2021 represented a 264.3% increase on 2020’s numbers and annual sales are expected to hit 27.6 million units by 2025 (IDC). Samsung has just launched the Galaxy Z Flip 4, while Xiaomi, Huawei and Motorola have all announced new foldable releases, too. This suggests flip phones are here to stay. Or does it? 

In this article, we examine whether flip phones are the future of mobile technology and how that impacts app developers. But a quick note before we start. Throughout this piece, we use the term flip phones to refer to both flip and fold phones. We recognise there is a difference but the base technology is largely the same and we feel comfortable bracketing them together for convenience’s sake. 

Are flip phones the future?

This is the big question. And our tentative answer is – yes… at least for a while. In the first year or two after release, much of the discussion surrounding flip phones focused on whether they were a gimmick or the future of mobile technology. In all honesty, we are still no closer to resolving that conundrum. But – and it is an important but – flip technology has established itself and is becoming an increasingly influential and well-respected player in the mobile market.

Like all technology, the flip phone format has a shelf life. Yes, it is part of our immediate future. But will it still be the dominant design in 10, 20 or 50 years? No. By then, we will all be using advanced wearables, biotech implants or some other outlandish sci-fi technology. So, the real question is: how long and to what extent will flip phones be an influential player in the mobile market?   

It is an interesting question and one whose answer may have very little to do with the qualities of the technology itself. 

There are hidden industry dynamics at play

Though it would be nice to think that the technology industry is perfectly meritocratic and the best, most useful products always rise to the top, it is simply not the case. Technological evolution depends on adoption. Adoption is determined by a range of other forces, many of them market-based.

Which brings us on to market forces, flip phones and the giant elephant in the room. Apple. The company with the second-largest smartphone market share – a company renowned for its trendsetting, industry-defining technology – is yet to produce a flip phone. That is not to say they won’t. There are rumours that Apple is scheduling a flip phone release for 2024-2025, but the company does not comment on upcoming technology, so we have no way of knowing if that is true. 

Apple could have a major say in flip technology’s longevity and import. It is a pretty significant snub if they choose to stay away from flip phones. It may well shorten flip’s lifespan.Alternatively, if they jump on the flip bandwagon, it could become the dominant style within years. But there is another possibility. Apple bypasses flip technology and shoots straight for the next generation of screen technology. What way will it go? Only time will tell.

A strategic attempt to change the rules of the game?

If you think we are overstating the importance of market dynamics in determining flip technology’s success, think again. Conor Pierce, head of Samsung’s UK Mobile Division, stated explicitly that their flip phones are a deliberate attempt to shake up the industry and erode Apple’s influence. 

At the moment, people view smartphone technology through the prism of Apple vs the others. To counter this, Samsung wants to shift the discourse away from operating systems.

“What we want to try to do is disrupt and change the game when it comes to an OS conversation. When you walk into a store, ‘do you want a folding phone or do you want a flat phone?’ should be the first question you’re asked”

Conor Pierce, in The Guardian

Marketing is another force at play in the flip phone debate. When originally released, several designs (most notably the Motorola Razr) appeared to rely heavily on the nostalgia vibe. For some companies, emerging flip technology seemed like a way to make money off a renewed interest in the light-hearted innocence of the pre-internet nineties and early noughties. Bucket hats, CDs, reboots of questionable ‘90s TV shows and clamshell phones are all back in. Didn’t you know?

This gave some credibility to the idea that flip technology was a bit of a gimmick. Three years on, this theory does not hold up well. The big tech players are investing heavily in flip and adoption is on the rise. If it was a gimmick at the start, it certainly is not now.

What do flip phones mean for app developers?

The other key issue for flip phones is app development. On the first release, app compatibility was one of the biggest complaints. Apps were not designed for this new type of device and a considerable number did not perform well. Some did not fit the screen, others did not function as they should and many were simply not available for download on flip phones. 

While those early teething problems have eased, they are not entirely gone. Flip phones still pose several challenges for app developers. These include:

Aspect ratio

For many years, screens on mobile devices have largely adhered to using a 16:9 aspect ratio. This is great for app developers, who know they can create an optimise an app for format and it will work on most mobile devices. However, flip phones come in all shapes and sizes and employ a range of aspect ratios. This will place even greater emphasis on responsive and adaptive design while also increasing the need for rigorous testing.

Resizable apps

Just as important is app continuity – how apps transition from one aspect ratio to another. Developers need to ensure that this transition is seamless and does not suffer from lag or bugs. 

Multi-window for multitasking

A bigger screen size means there is more scope for multi-window multitasking. Browsing your photos on one part of the screen while typing a message on the other, for instance. Running multiple apps at the same time has the potential to radically alter the way we interact with our devices and how apps interact with one another. Developers will have to factor in new actions and gestures (such as drag and drop) to accommodate these capabilities.

Foldable states

Flip phones also open up the possibility of a whole range of new display ‘states.’ With non-flip models, there are two principal states. Portrait and landscape. But flip phones can be folded, open, or half-open. Apps may behave differently in each state. 

When half-open, the top screen could be a chat interface and the bottom a keyboard, resulting in a display that resembles a traditional laptop setup. When open, the keyboard may take up less space, allowing for easier multitasking. 

Secondary screens are typically included on the exterior of flip phones to display notifications and other information, ensuring users don’t always have to open the device. These screens present another whole range of challenges and possibilities. What information should they include? How can they be used to streamline and simplify the user experience?  

This is perhaps where flip phones show the most potential. Whether app developers can take advantage of these capabilities may also determine how successful the technology is.

What next?

Though we would love to give you a definitive answer and tell you flip phones either are or are not the technology of the future, that is pretty difficult to do. Modern technology (and mobile technology in particular) advances at such a dizzying rate that it is increasingly hard to know what awaits us beyond that next bend in the road. 

However, we think it is safe to say that foldable technology will play a significant role over the coming years. Whether it is still relevant in a decade is more difficult to ascertain. One thing is for sure, though. Foldable is an exciting prospect for the development team at The Distance. We cannot wait to make the most of the technology’s potential.

If you want to learn more about how The Distance can help you develop foldable-friendly apps for your business, do not hesitate to get in touch and speak to one of our experienced team members. Alternatively, check out the work we have already done for high-profile clients around the world.

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