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Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is a another take on the emerging foldable phone format.

Unlike earlier foldable phones which are the size of everyday phones that open to become an iPad mini-sized tablet, the Flip opens long ways. It resembles the flip phones that we are supposed to feel nostalgia for.

It’s neat, but not as useful as other folding phones for reading complex documents.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

But there’s something else about the Galaxy Z Flip that appeals to me. It goes a long way to protect you from notification hell.

There’s a tiny screen on the front of the phone which lights up when there is an incoming notification. This is a lot less distracting than having a conventional phone screen light up with with a notification message.

Moreover, because you have to physically open the phone to read the full notification, there is a lot more distance between you and the incoming distraction.

It is easier to ignore the notification and easier to park it for later when you are not trying to focus. It’s not much protection, but enough to ease the cognitive load for a moment or two.

Of course the other possibility is to turn notifications off. That would be cheaper.

This year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has been cancelled after mass cancellations from exhibitors worried about the corona virus. GSMA, the organising body pulled the plug on Wednesday, two weeks before the event was due to begin. Before GSMA acted big names such as Cisco, Nokia, Vodafone group and Facebook all dropped out.

The Financial Times (behind a paywall) reports:

The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.

This makes a lot of sense. MWC is a huge four day event, more than 100,000 people from all over the world attend. Many are from China where the virus is most prevalent. Last year the organisers boasted there were more than 1 million business meetings at the event.

If only one of those people tested positive for the virus, all the attendees would need to be quarantined for two weeks. Apart from anything else, the expense and logistics of that would be on an unprecedented scale.

Apart from the financial risk, the danger for GSMA is that cancelling this year’s MWC could put next year’s event in jeopardy. But let’s not dismiss that financial risk, the show’s insurers appear unwilling to pay out for cancellation.

Samsung is on its second generation of foldable phones. Motorola and Huawei are a step behind, but remain in the game. Will your next phone be one you can fold?

The technology is impressive. All the foldable phones I’ve seen to date look great. They are also useful.

Folding means a handheld phone can morph into a small iPad Mini sized tablet. They make reading and simple online tasks easier than on everyday phones.

From a phone maker perspective they do three important things.

First, they give phone buyers a reason to upgrade. People have been hanging on to phones for longer because there is less pressing reason to upgrade. Adding a new functionality breaks that cycle.

Out of the cul-de-sac

Second, they give phone makers a route of the design cul-de-sac.

Phone formats have stabilised as slabs of glass and metal. They would be almost featureless if it were not for the ever swelling camera bumps. Makers add more lenses and more receptor pixels in a bid to competitive1.

Folding phones open up new ways to differentiate and compete.

The third benefit of folding phones for phone makers is they sell for premium prices. Phone makers can increase the average unit price at a time of intense competition downward pressure on prices.

Phone makers announced two more foldable models in the last week or so. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip and Lenovo’s $1,500 Motorola Razr are both flip phones with folding screens.

Foldables have not got off to a good start. Samsung’s Galaxy Fold was a botched launch. A second wave of models was better, but they are still fragile and expensive at NZ $3400.

Fragile, foldable

The Motorola Razr is as fragile and has poor battery life.

In other words, the models we’ve seen so far are undercooked. They will sell to well-heeled early adopters. These people will pay a king’s ransom to act as guinea pigs. Meanwhile the phone makers can go back to the drawing board and perfect their designs.

They will make it into the mainstream in one of two ways. Either Apple will create a folding iPhone that gets the technology right and resets the market or Samsung will brute force its way to success. The other possibility is that folding phones go the way of 3D television sets.

There’s no doubt this is a development worth watching. My advice is to hang on to your money for now, maybe squeeze another year from your existing phone. The benefits of having a bigger screen are not enough to outweigh the risk of spending a lot of money on something that’s easy to break.


  1. It’s questionable this is what most buyers want. ↩︎

Not everyone thinks phones have a negative effect on kids. At the New York Times Nathaniel Popper writes:

“A growing number of academics are challenging assumptions about the negative effects of social media and smartphones on children.”

Research by two psychology professors sifted through 40 studies examining links between social media use, adolescent depression and anxiety. They conclude the link is “small and inconsistent”.

Social media

In other words this isn’t about phones, it’s about social media. Phones are what people in the computer security business call the attack vector.

Earlier research published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2011 suggests there is a link between Facebook and depression. That was later revised.

Since then here have been many similar high profile reports. One researcher linked social media to teen suicide.

“There doesn’t seem to be an evidence base that would explain the level of panic and consternation around these issues,” said Candice L. Odgers, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the lead author of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.”

“The debate over the harm we — and especially our children — are doing to ourselves by staring into phones is generally predicated on the assumption that the machines we carry in our pockets pose a significant risk to our mental health.”

With academics you have to take note of all the words. Odgers talks of ‘significant risk’. That doesn’t mean there is no risk. Her point is that the panic is overdone. That doesn’t mean we can ignore the risks.

The kids are alright

Odgers says: “In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.”

This is true. But do phones, or social media, reveal or amplify the problems?

While this story may make sense from an academic psychiatry point of view, there’s another dimension. We know social media outlets and their advertisers manipulate emotions because they have admitted as much and, in some cases, promised to improve future behaviour.

So by all means dial down your concerns about children and phones, but don’t wash your hands of the matter. There are things to worry about, they just are not as bad as excitable commentators would have you think.

Huawei may need Google more than Google needs Huawei, but the ban still threatens Android’s dominance.

May 2019 saw the US President sign an executive order banning ‘foreign adversaries’ from dealing with America’s telecoms industry.

The unnamed ‘foreign adversary’ is Huawei.

Huawei is already banned from building US 5G cellular networks. The order also stopped US companies from working with Huawei’s phone handset business.

This meant Google suspended its business with Huawei. That was a blow for the Chinese phone maker, Huawei phones run on Google’s Android software.

Beyond Android

The ban goes beyond Android. It means Huawei phones can’t use the Play app store. Nor can they use Google Maps, Gmail or the official Search app. Google Mobile Services features are central to the Android phone experience.

Huawei makes some of the best Android phones. It has a huge market share, now second only to Samsung. Yet the company sells little in the US.

With Huawei phones unable to ship with Google apps installed, sales have fallen outside China.

Otherwise, Huawei appears to be in good shape. In October it announced revenues were up 24 percent on the previous year. The company signed 60 contracts to build 5G networks last year.

Huawei could sit out the ban. Many think it is as much about US trade protectionism as anything to do with security.

Subscribers to this school of thought believe the US could lift the Huawei ban as part of trade negotiations.

While that is plausible, Huawei never wants to be in this position again. It cannot afford to be dependent on Google when the US could turn off the tap again at any moment.

Huawei has offered Chinese customers a non-Google version of its phones for years. It isn’t a problem there. It is more of an issue in places like New Zealand, Australia and Europe where people rely on Google services.

To get around the ban, Huawei is replacing Google Mobile Services with its own services. It aims to spend US$ 3 billion this year getting developers to improve Huawei Mobile Services. It has set aside another billion to market those services.

Harmony in my head

Huawei is also developing its own Harmony OS. It scheduled release for early this year. Now Huawei says it is running late and could take years to emerge.

The acid test for Huawei’s post-Google life is the P40 phone launch. It will have no Google services. Huawei expects to lose some market share.

Reuters reports Huawei plans to join forces with other Chinese phone makers to set up a rival to Android and challenge Google Play.

The original plan was to launch in March. This could be set-back by the recent corona virus outbreak.

Joining Huawei are Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi. For now, the other Chinese phone makers are not locked out of Google. Yet the move amounts to admission they fear the ban could extend to them.

Between them, the four account for 40 percent of handsets sold worldwide. Yet for now they restrict their project to nine regions including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia.

It is still early days. Yet it seems the US ban on Huawei is speeding up Chinese tech companies becoming independent of US ones. They already buy less American hardware, software and services. Google and Android remain strong, but one outcome of the ban is to undermine the near monopoly.