(Pocket-lint) - There are always those times you get super excited about something you don't really need, like scoring an extra legroom plane seat only for it to be less wide than a normal one. The promise of the best-ever virtual reality experience which invariably sees you chundering on the living room carpet. And, yes, pre-ordering a multi-thousand-dollar folding smartphone, which then doesn't - and perhaps never will? - see the light of day.
We're excited about folding phones; really, genuinely, we are. Anything that pushes the limits of technology forward is great to watch unfold (horrible pun, sorry), but there are times when it's just technology beyond purpose.
Samsung thought it was ready with the Galaxy Fold - cue Foldgate - which Huawei perhaps learnt from to some degree with the Mate X (since then suffering elsewhere for different reasons due to US trade wars) and other makers going unsurprisingly quiet over the matter (yes, Xiaomi, we're looking at you).
Here we run through the hurdles thus far and the reason why, right now, no company is yet ready to release a foldable smartphone.
The hardware just isn't ready
It almost goes without saying: there have been heaps of examples which have shown how such handsets aren't up to the task. It started with the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which Samsung unveiled just before Mobile World Congress 2019, only to then show off the product at the show itself in a reflective glass box. It didn't take long for Twitter users to start spotting 'creases' in the screen.
Maybe just a blip with the initial engineering sample not being final build? Well, no, because the review products that went out to US press later caused havoc. There were screen protectors getting removed on purpose (because who reads the manual ever?) causing irreparable screen damage. There were bumps and lumps appearing in strange places on the screens. Quite simply: there were too many issues in too short a period, so this was no one-off issue (see Wall Street Journal, The Verge).
There are some great points made by iFixit about the fragility of OLED screens - although Samsung is the only maker to be producing hole-punch cameras in such panels such as the Galaxy S10+ (no other maker has managed it) and how any interference from dust/particles would also spell death. Not to mention that during testing repeat 'folding robots' do things exactly the same time and again, unlike humans who might repeat an action multiple times, but rarely with accuracy (otherwise we'd all hit triple 20 on the dartboard every time and be world champs, right?).
Then there's Huawei, which waited until Mobile World Congress 2019 proper to show off its device: the Mate X. Far more impressive-looking than the Galaxy, the Huawei device depended on an external rather than internal fold. Huawei was coy about letting many industry folk actually touch the phone - we only got near to it in a private presentation and, even then, it was clear to see marginal creases were visible.
But there's a bigger potential issue: screen protectors aren't good enough to resist scratches*. And when you've got a phone that effectively has an exposed screen on both sides - yep, that's you there, Mr Mate X - it's even more at risk for it.
(*As nobody has been able to test a Mate X in real life this is currently unfounded, but we'd be highly surprised to see one such device survive more than a week without some epic Tyrion Lannister-style lacerations).
The software isn't ready either
Both Samsung Galaxy Fold and Huawei Mate X depend on Google's Android operating system. And as these phones aren't made by Google, their extra screens, folds, unusually placed notches and such like add a pervading issue in how adaptations to the software will work. Or won't, more to the point, because third-parties will likely need to invest time in getting their apps to work correctly - time which they may not be willing to invest.
The issue runs a bit deeper with Huawei because of current political climes. There's a US trade war on, which has seen US companies forced to cease trade with the Chinese giant, including Google. That's a problem because future Android support won't be possible to realise. Now, Huawei has its own re-work over Android, called EMUI (Emotional User Interface, how tear-jerkingly lovely, eh?), but that's based on using Android. Its potential workaround is its HarmonyOS, announced at its inaugral Huawei Developer Conference in China, during a weekend in August 2019.
Do people really want a folding phone anyway?
Which leads us to another not inconsiderable point: do people really want a folding phone, or even two screens? It's not the first time a two-screen phone has existed - there's been the YotaPhone with its E-Ink rear panel, there's the Nubia X with two rather large screens, and the Vivo NEX Dual Display which delivers two almost full-size panels - but not of them have been critical successes.
There's an obvious reason for this: price. All the above phones are either hard to obtain in some territories and/or cost a small fortune. That won't affect everyone, of course, and the Samsung Galaxy Fold - with its $2,000 pre-order price in the US - saw all available units snapped up in a day.
But nobody knows how many pre-orders that equates to, except for Samsung. And they've all been subsequently cancelled anyway, with AT&T, BestBuy and more calling it a day - likely spelling the end for this phone in its entirety, though we'll have to wait and see.
The Huawei Mate X is even pricier, at €2,299 (read that as $2,600 / £2,000), and has been delayed upon delay - its September launch date is now pushed until at least November, reports suggest. It may be one of those dead elephants that keeps on getting pushed back and back until it's no more.
Other companies are also keeping shtum about their plans. Xiaomi has teased such a phone - the Mi Mix Flex - but hasn't flexed its muscles hard enough to actually show off that device. Doing so right now would probably be a mistake, unless it's found some new-fangled technology that'll get around the various issues discussed. Oppo is said to have such a phone in the works too.
Even companies that make phones are side-stepping such technology for use in such devices. Lenovo is the greatest example of this yet, with its 'foldable PC' concept - a laptop where the screen runs right over the hinge and into a lower control bar by the keyboard. That's savvy design, because it won't be in your pocket, the screen lid will keep the panel protected, and it's not an actual real product you can buy just yet. Because, well, it's not quite ready... just like folding phones aren't either.
This article was first published June 2019 and has been updated to reflect additional delays, new patents and software possibilities.