Smartphones are getting weird again, and it could be a sign that the industry is on the brink of another huge change


When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone more than 10 years ago, he famously showcased its ability to function as three devices in one: a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator.

But the breakthroughs that came in the years following the iPhone’s debut were almost just as impactful — the launch of the App Store in 2008, the emergence of larger-screened devices after Samsung’s first Galaxy Note in 2011, the rise of touchless voice controls with the launch of Siri in 2011 followed by the original Moto X in 2013, and the iPhone 5s’s TouchID home button that made passcodes feel obsolete in 2012.

But it’s become increasingly difficult — if not impossible — to pinpoint new smartphones that have made a similar effect. New models introduced by the industry’s biggest players, such as Apple and Samsung, have felt iterative more than revolutionary in recent years.

For example, the biggest differences between the flagship iPhone 11 Pro launched by Apple in September 2019 compared with 2018’s iPhone Xs are its new triple-lens camera that’s better at taking photos in the dark, improved water-resistance, and a more sophisticated processor — improvements that are appreciated but certainly don’t fundamentally change how smartphones are used. The same can be said for Samsung’s new Galaxy S10, which offers a superior screen that the company says offers more accurate color representation than its predecessor along with a refreshed design and a better camera. 


But now that the smartphone has seemingly matured, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the world’s biggest mobile device makers are thinking about what’s next. Motorola’s latest smartphone, a revival of the popular Razr flip phone from the early 2000s, is the most recent example of this.

The 2019 Razr features a 6.2-inch screen with a flexible build that enables it to fold in half, just like the flip phone you probably remember using around the year 2005. That means you can snap it shut when you’re finished with a phone call, just like in the old days. But instead of tapping individual, old-fashioned buttons on a keypad, the new Razr’s touchscreen stretches across the entire device — just like any other modern smartphone. When closed, it features a smaller 2.7-inch screen capable of displaying information like the time and notifications. That convenience and nostalgia will cost you, however, since the phone is priced at $1,500. 

Motorola is far from being the only company to experiment with different smartphone form factors. Samsung announced a foldable phone of its own in February, the nearly-$2,000 Galaxy Fold, which opens and closes like a book. The Fold features a 7.3-inch tablet-sized display when opened and a 4.6-inch on its front.

Samsung was initially supposed to release the phone back in April, but pushed back the launch after a few reviewers reported that the device’s screen had broken after just a couple of days of use. The Fold eventually launched in in the United States on September 27, but only after Samsung had endured criticism for seemingly introducing the phone before it was ready.

Huawei also announced a foldable phone of its own just shortly after Samsung in February called the Mate X. Unlike Samsung’s phone, the Mate X includes a flexible display that wraps around the outside of the device rather than folding inward. While Huawei’s foldable phone certainly made waves when it was revealed, attention quickly shifted to the ongoing tension between the Chinese smartphone giant and the US government. Huawei was placed on a trade blacklist in May that prevents it from working with American companies, which means the firm is no longer allowed to use Google’s Android operating system on future products. 

Aside from these foldable phones, this year’s Mobile World Congress convention in February also served as an indication that the smartphone as we know it may change. New unconventional phones launched under the  Energizer and Nokia brands made their debut at the convention, boasting features and form factors that are at least exciting and refreshing, if nothing else. Avenir Telecom’s Energizer P18K Pop packs a massive 18,000 mAh battery that gives it 50 days of battery life when in standby mode, for example, while HMD Global’s Nokia 9 PureView smartphone has a staggering five cameras on its rear.  

Whether such devices will ever make it to mainstream status has yet to be seen, but they’re at least evident that tech companies are experimenting in an industry that has remained largely stagnant. Global smartphone shipments had declined for seven consecutive quarters before increasing by 0.8% year-over-year in third quarter of 2019, according to recent statistics from the International Data Corporation. Part of the reason sales have slowed is because smartphone owners aren’t upgrading their devices as often as they used to.

That may be because new smartphones simply aren’t as exciting as they used to be. A survey conducted by UBS Evidence Lab, the results of which were published in May by a team of analysts led by David Mulholland, found that 12-month purchase intent for potential smartphone shoppers had decreased from 42% to 41% year-over-year. But the advent of new technologies like foldable phones and support for 5G networks could drive growth next year. “We believe that consumers will need to see real value and attraction in foldable form factors or from 5G in order to be willing to see further increases in smartphone average selling prices,” the note read.

That’s not to say these new offbeat devices will necessarily play a role in boosting industry sales. The prices alone on devices like the Galaxy Fold and Motorola Razr will probably prevent them from being blockbuster hits.

And there’s no telling whether these foldable form factors will be representative of the next major evolution of the smartphone. After all, the feature phones with retractable keyboards that dominated the early 2000s, such as the T-Mobile Sidekick, don’t look anything like the sleek rectangular touchscreen smartphones we use today. But the Sidekick and others set the stage for an era in which we use our phones for much more than just texting.

These new foldable devices may similarly lay the foundation for whatever comes next. While what exactly that entails remains unclear, one thing is for sure — such devices are no longer just prototypes or concepts, they’re on the horizon. 

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