Brick Phones (and Mobile Phones)
The first portable phones were barely. A suitcase with a battery combined with an obnoxiously heavy phone apparatus made the first portable phones more of a novelty than an everyday item, useful only for the uber-important. Reception was not great. Neither was battery life despite the comically huge battery. Still, it was a significant advancement over phones that had to be tethered to a wall or had to be attached to a car due to all the peripheral hardware it took to make them.
After these monstrosities, things like the brick phone (which Samsung pioneered) seemed futuristic by comparison. You could hold it with one hand, and the battery was built in, and although call quality was often poor, it was better than having to stop what you were doing to find a phone booth to place a call from.
Mobile phones only improved from there, shrinking in thickness and overall size until it more closely resembled a TV remote, and then as they became common pocket accessories and the exposed buttons became a liability, phones were able to fold when battery strength improved to the point that it’d make sense to split the phone in half. Phone calls were still often dropped during these transitions, so landlines and phone booths were still preferable for important calls up until smart phones forced mobile network advancements, but ordinary casual calls during this time were more available than ever.
After that, Apple revolutionized what a phone was expected to do with the iPhone, and smartphones effectively took over the market. Apple dominates the market, but Samsung and Android devices make up most of the leftover market share. Phones reverse the trend of getting smaller and smaller, and instead begin to grow. The first iPhone was about 1.25 times the size of a deck of cards, and pretty thick by today’s standards – meanwhile, the latest iPhone has a display size of 6.7 inches! Exposed buttons have once again become a liability.
Namely, because although phones are now huge, pockets have largely stayed the same size. There was a period of time where skinny jeans and ultra-giant screens from Samsung intersected. This was a huge problem! The pockets were physically too small to actually hold the phone. People with backpacks and purses were fine, but young men and women who had just gotten out of the times where JNCO was fashionable and phones were small found the inversion really annoying. Even today, with skinny jeans out and mom jeans in, putting a phone into a pocket and having that pocket completely hold the phone with no stick-out is nigh impossible outside of cargo pants and techwear.
However, the larger screen is such a customary part of the phone that small phones feel tiny in comparison, once you’ve used ones big enough to watch 480p movies on. It’s a Catch-22: a small phone has a smaller screen. Thus, while there’s some demand for a smaller phone, the majority of people end up sizing up as all of the tech adapts to the biggest (both physically and sales-wise) phone on the market: the iPhone. Every company ends up making devices larger because more = better, right?
(Note, this isn’t the same incident as the phones bending in pockets – that was Apple’s iPhone 6, the result of a weaker alloy with more aluminum in it being used, although it also showcased the issues of big phone and small pocket.)
Why not fold the smartphone? Well, firstly, there wasn’t yet a screen material that would allow the user to fold and unfold their phone without also compromising the responsiveness and toughness of the screen. It seemed like a real pick-two situation. Secondly, the hinge that would allow for folding would either thicken the device, make it noticeably heavier, or be prohibitively weak, depending on how big and out of what material the manufacturers ended up making the hinge (and phone casing) out of. Thirdly, the internal components of every modern smartphone are designed around their current configuration, where they’re one thin, flat, bar. You can make some things fold, and you can shrink others, but the battery has to be solidly in one side of the device or another because we don’t (yet!) have a flexible battery that can hold the kind of charge modern users are accustomed to.
To this day, the third problem hasn’t been solved, and the foldable phones made by Samsung have a reduced battery life. The second problem is solved theoretically, but the phone itself is noticeably thicker than a non-folding Galaxy phone, also made by Samsung, which alleviates the battery and hinge issue and doesn’t really come into play because the phone folds now, and so it doesn’t need to be thinner to fit into places.
What Samsung’s managed to do is impressive on more than one front. Everyone wanted to be the iPhone, but the iPhone keeps getting bigger, thinner, more expensive, and easier to break – there’s bound to be a niche of people who want the iPhone’s performance and camera without all of the baggage buying a luxury name-brand product comes with. By breaking free of the traditional smartphone mold (and by finally finding a solution for the folding plastics problem by compromising on toughness for flexibility) they’ve set a new precedent for consumers. People want innovation!