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Dear Samsung, I Don’t Want Your Folding Phone

Samsung’s flexible display phone concept is tantalizing, but remind me, again, why we need two screens

Samsung President DJ Koh announces the flexible, multi-screen phone

Seeing Samsung’s Infinity Flex Display, foldable screen phone, for the first time on Wednesday is like confirmation that aliens exist. I’ve heard the wild rumors, seen blurry photos, and have evidence that in the universe of mobile devices, something like this must exist, but seeing it in the silicon is both awe-inspiring and, just like knowing we really aren’t alone in the universe, a little unsettling.

What I saw on the livestream isn’t the most elegant prototype. The blocky, nearly inch-thick device has what appears to be a standard 4-to-5-inch screen on the outside and, folded up like a hotdog bun on the inside, an almost 8-inch flexible display surrounded by wide, gray bezels. A Samsung exec held it up on stage at the company’s annual developers conference, then folded it up and slipped it into his jacket pocket. It’s a wonder he didn’t then tip over from the weight imbalance.

That still-under-development device stood in stark contrast to the more elegant Infinity Flex Display phone Samsung showed in a promo video. In it, we saw the future: Edge-to-edge infinity displays, one on the outside and the other folded on the inside.

Unfolded, the wide screen will provide a new Android UI, one co-developed by Samsung and Android that will take full use of the 8-inch display. You can watch a YouTube video on the entire display, or split it up, Windows-style, watching a video on one side, while moving app windows around on the other. The hybrid interface is called One UI and I do applaud Samsung for taking this slow and developing a new interface metaphor to support both the multi-screen system and larger mobile screen.

Tale as old as Time

More screen in a near mobile phone form factor is not a new idea. Before OLED, the intrinsically flexible display technology, many companies tried to build dual-screen devices that almost felt like one continuous mobile display. There was the abandoned Microsoft Courier product, a Windows-like folio with no screen on the outside, but two equally sized screens within that could work in tandem. It was under development before Apple’s iPad and, by the time Apple showed the world how tablet was done, internal corporate strife had killed the Courier. In 2011, Kyocera (and David Blaine!) unveiled the Echo, another dual-screen clamshell device that was essentially two-standalone screens stuffed into a mobile phone-plus form factor. I never saw that clunky product out in the wild.

No doubt, Samsung’s Infinity Flex Display is a technological leap ahead of those forebears. Still, I’m uneasy with the idea of two screens in my pocket.

An almost 8-inch display on a mobile phone is arguably larger than any standard smartphone display will or should ever be. It’s in tablet range, tiny tablet, mind you, but still tips over into that space. It’s not nearly large enough for me to leave my laptop behind, which itself is a 12.3-inch tablet. So now I have three screens. There’s also the tiny screen on my Apple Watch. Having an extra screen in my pocket won’t prompt me to leave that behind either.

So now I have four screens. Aren’t we supposed to be cutting down our screen time?

Let’s say I want all these screens. Why not just carry an extra tiny tablet or even a second phone? I know many people who do this.

The Limits of Technology

Samsung’s flexible display doesn’t fold entirely flat. The current OLED technology makes that impossible; a true crease will break it or permanently separate the near-8-inch display into two narrow ones. OLED rolls ups pretty well, but if Samsung unveiled the Tube Infinity Display, where would they put the second display, on the outside of a cigar-sized cylinder ?

Samsung’s design balances the thickness of the two sides, which I like, and probably envisions some components and battery on both sides. One side, though, has to support a second screen, so it might end up being a little thicker. Inevitably, this phone will be thicker and heavier than a single-display device.

Two screens should offer a world of possibilities. I can focus on the main screen on the outside and then flip open the Infinity Flex Display phone to continue working on the much larger screen. At least that’s how I hope it works. But what if the transition isn’t seamless? Developing for a dual-screen device presents all kinds of new challenges for app developers, not the least of which is supporting that large-screen ratio and another UI in addition to the standard displays on millions of existing Android phones. If and when this product comes to market, I envision millions of apps that only work on the standard-sized outside display.

Flexible displays are the future, but I don’t need two screens and, to be honest, I don’t need another screen in my pocket that’s not quite large enough to make me leave behind my tablet or PC.

Perhaps if Samsung had watched a little more science fiction it would understand what the general public expects from future displays. They’re paper thin, translucent, and even disposable. Squeezing a folding display inside another phone is not going to cut it.

I think LG gets it. The company has been working on translucent and rollable displays for years. In January, the company showed me an HDTV screen that could roll own into a 6-inch-tall box.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m still excited about Samsung’s Infinity Flexible Display concept. Even though everyone from Apple to Samsung and Google is using OLED displays inside their latest smartphones, they’re all backed by rigid materials. There are no pocket-sized flexible displays on the consumer market. This will be a first.

When Samsung finally starts shipping the product and I and every other tech journalist scramble to experience it, we’ll all know, in some simian part of our brains, this isn’t quite the future we want.