Since the introduction of the first iPhone, we’ve been on a path to this point in history. Year after year of innovations followed by years of iterations have led us to the inevitable end we find ourselves in right now: slab smartphones are boring. Here in the US, there’s less competition, but even in markets where brands like Huawei, Xioami, and Oppo are fighting for market share, there’s a startlingly-small amount of difference from one slab phone to the next. Perhaps we’ve squeezed all we’re going to squeeze from this device category.
Don’t get me wrong: smartphones in their current state are simply amazing devices. They are impressive at photography and video, they make for the most accessible portal to information at any given time the world has ever known, and they give us gaming and media consumption options in our pocket like we’ve never had before. I love smartphones, but I also recognize that the era is over when one particular phone with one particular feature is outright better than another.
However, if you start talking about new and emerging form factors, things return to being incredibly interesting all over again. While flip-style foldables are fun and nice for storage, they open up into largely the same form factor that we’re all a bit blase about right now. But folding phones that transform into pocketable tablets? That’s a whole other story.
The Pixel Fold could make some big waves
Again, here in the US, our folding phone options are limited pretty severely. At this point, if you want a folding phone in this country, you’re looking at a Samsung device. The only option is whether you go for the latest version or the older ones, and that isn’t even much of a choice. Thanks to what has largely been an iterative cycle by Samsung in the first four years of the Galaxy Z Fold’s existence, there isn’t wild differentiation between the Z Fold 3 and Z Fold 4, and rumors suggest it will be more of the same for the Z Fold 5 as well.
It looks like Google is ready to step up with some real competition, however, as the Pixel Fold seems just on the edge of a legit launch in just over 6 weeks at this point at Google I/O 2023. If the rumors hold, we could be looking at a $1300-$1500 folding phone from Google that would directly compete with Samsung for the first time here in the US in the larger folding phone category. And that competition is needed.
The leaked renders look amazing and with a stellar camera likely on board (it’s a Pixel, after all) and a great form factor when closed up (it should be about the size of the Pixel 6a), the Pixel Fold could show up and quickly become a fan favorite. Though you don’t see Samsung Galaxy Z Folds all over the place, part of that is due to price. If Google gets the price down to the low end of the rumors, a $1300 folding phone could be an absolute game changer if there are no massive, glaring flaws.
And with the dwindling number of true competitors in the smartphone space in the US right now, I don’t see anyone else even thinking about going toe-to-toe with Samsung in this area. If Google can manage to put out a phone that gets most of the folding phone equation right and keeps the price down, it could be a huge win for Google’s hardware team.
This is what we’ve been missing
And it’s precisely this type of competition and drive I feel like we’ve lost in the standard slab smartphone game. Many times, it feels like people have chosen their tribes (Apple, Samsung, Google, etc.) and because of the fact that there’s so little differentiation between them at this point, there’s no reason to even consider jumping ship to a competitor anymore.
But folding phones are early, interesting, and might just get heavily competitive depending on how the Pixel Fold lands. If it’s a hit, that means Samsung will have to get back to more innovation and a bit less iteration. It also means we might have a few other players (Motorola, Apple, OnePlus) that might finally jump in to compete as well, and that is where things get fun again.
Let’s face it: when there’s one dominant brand and innovations slow to a crawl, people buy less devices year-over-year, companies stop being daring, and we miss out on cool stuff that otherwise might have been built if there was a bit more action in the space. Folding phones are part of the answer to this stagnation, and the Pixel Fold is one that has a real potential for disruption if it comes together just right. We don’t have long to wait at this point, and I can’t wait to see what Google delivers with their first-ever foldable come May.