If you ever wondered whether the tech business is thrashing around in search of something – anything – to make people Buy More Unneeded Stuff, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is all the proof you need. Heralded as the first phone that unfolds to become a tablet, or possibly the first tablet that folds up into a phone, its worldwide launch has now been delayed because the units sent to some reviewers broke.
In some cases, they peeled off a protective layer over the folding screen, thinking it was just a protective layer; but it turned out that it was actually Very Important, and Not To Be Removed. Others found their screen gave up or seemed to be cracking, which worried Samsung so much that it demanded the units back. Now the company is taking a few weeks while it figures out whether to go ahead and demand $2,000 (£1,500) for a phone that might break in a few days.
The trouble is, smartphone sales are in the doldrums, so we’re at the throw-ideas-at-the-wall stage of innovation
Samsung isn’t the only company that thinks folding screens are what we want; China’s Huawei also has one, except that folds in another direction. Fortunately for Huawei, however, it wasn’t planning to launch its foldable until autumn – by which time it might be able to pretend it was all a fever dream.
The trouble is, smartphone sales are in the doldrums, so we’re at the throw-ideas-at-the-wall stage of innovation. Other companies are adding cameras so quickly they’ll soon have an insect-style compound eye.
Samsung, of course, made itself famous in 2016 with the Note 7, a phone whose bonus feature was that it could burn your house down while you slept: the battery had been squashed in so tightly that it could overheat while charging. Samsung recalled the Note 7 not once but twice, in the process achieving the rare honour of being banned from all flights in the United States. You can almost smell the desperation in so many tech “advances”, which take the form either of adding things you didn’t need (the side button on Samsung phones is hardwired to its awful Bixby voice assistant) or taking away things you did (Apple removing phone headphone jacks so you need to buy, and lose, tiny plug-in dongles).
But really, are there no new boundaries to explore in technology other than phone-tablets? (And why is nobody calling the Fold a “phablet”, a word coined when phones started to grow to the size of bread slices?) Again and again, technology companies show a peculiar deafness to users’ desires. Facebook has the rare distinction of having been cited in a United Nations report on genocide, and was used by Russia to try to steer the US presidential election. So what’s it doing about that? Good news: political ads will in future have teeny-tiny labels you can click to find out who funded them. That’s going to fix it all!
It doesn’t end there, unfortunately. Anyone who has visited San Francisco, at the upper end of Silicon Valley, knows it desperately needs a solution to homelessness: which is why millions of dollars are being poured into scooter startups so that moneyed people can get away from them faster. Similarly, America’s health system is absurdly expensive, so tech companies have invented systems that let you scan a cheque and email the image rather than posting the thing, thus saving you the cost of a stamp.
Somewhere, it’s all gone a bit off-kilter. Stuff doesn’t break like it used to; phones now last years and years. Maybe it was inevitable that Samsung would invent the self-breaking phone. But it’s hard to say that’s progress.
• Charles Arthur is the author of Cyber Wars: Hacks That Shocked the Business World