Chinese firm Xiaomi is famous for shaking things up at every available opportunity, and it has just gatecrashed the nascent ‘folding phone’ party with trademark grace and aplomb. In a video released on Chinese social networking site Weibo, Xiaomi co-founder and president Lin Bin is shown messing about with the company’s prototype folding phone, giving us one of the best practical demonstrations of how this technology could work when placed in the right hands.
In the minute-long clip, Bin is shown using the device as a tablet, the benign smile on his face clearly showing that he’s benefitting from that massive screen area. However, partway through the footage, he folds in the sides of the screen – an action that would normally trigger worried looks from people nearby – to create a more traditional phone-like shape. The phone’s UI reacts automatically to accommodate this new form. Swish!
Bin has stated that the device shown is simply a prototype sample and not the finished article, which would suggest that the final production model is still some way off. However, he also states that in creating this device, Xiaomi has successfully overcome “a series of technical problems such as flexible folding screen technology, four-wheel-drive folding shaft technology, flexible cover technology, and MIUI adaptation.” It would seem that the Chinese tech giant has overcome the hard bit, so we may yet see its folding phone in 2019.
Xiaomi’s approach does throw up some questions, though. Where will the camera be, given that the screen wraps around the back, totally covering it? Outside of portability, what advantage does the user get from those folding sides – will they be used to display information, for example? And what happens if you drop a phone like this onto a solid surface? Given that the screen covers the entire device when it’s in ‘phone’ mode, fitting a case will be all but impossible.
All of which leads us to that niggling doubt we have in the back of our minds: folding phones are merely a gimmick; a way of showing-off fancy folding screen tech but not something that actually offers any tangible benefit to the end user.
Still, we must sound like the old man who shouts at clouds by now. Motorola, Samsung and Huawei are all set to launch folding phones this year, but we’ve already seen how poorly the concept can be exploited in Royole’s handset, which is exclusive to China at present – which is a good thing, as it’s so badly executed that it would put consumers elsewhere in the world off the idea for good.
Did we mention that we’re still not convinced about folding phones yet? Oh, we did? Sorry.
Damien McFerran has been covering phones and mobile technology for well over a decade. An Android specialist, as well as an expert reviewer of phones, Damien is one of the best technology journalists working today. He is also editorial director over at the excellent Nintendo Life.