Recently, Google announced that its Android OS will natively support foldable screens on smartphones. Coupled with Samsung’s promise of a Galaxy foldable smartphone, it appears that this form factor — promised by consumer tech companies since the end of the last century — may soon emerge.
What kind of opportunities– and challenges — would this technology represent for marketing?
A big deal. Foldables could potentially come in a variety of form factors, ranging from a single screen that covers either the two outside or the two inside surfaces of a flip phone, to a small screen that fits into a pocket and unfolds like a map into a larger display. Eventually, almost any kind of malleable screen may be possible.
While some observers speculate that truly thin and flexible screens — as bendable as paper — are years off, the fact is that marketers don’t yet know how fast the technology will take hold or evolve.
In any case, several experts that I contacted say a foldable screen — in its various possible incarnations — is a big deal.
‘A complete reimagining.’ Mobile device buyers “are eager to see something dramatically different,” customer experience platform Sitecore CTO Ryan Donovan told me via email. Foldable screens, he said, “open the door to a complete reimagining” of how information is sent and consumed, “more radical” that the smartwatch.
That means, of course, that marketers and their information, interaction and visual designers have a lot of new choices to make.
For instance, Donovan said, marketers will need to decide if there is a different set of content and a different kind of responsiveness every time a screen is folded open or close.
Should it be the same image writ larger when the screen is unfolded, or should it become two images? The device will likely know about an “unfolding” action, so should that trigger some difference in content or interactivity?
Potentially, the unfolding could turn a phone into the equivalent of a tablet. How does that transformation from one device type to another change the content and the interactivity?
Completing complex actions. One approach for marketers to deal with a multi-device universe has been to create content that is independent from the presentation layer and from the screen size, so the same material can be rendered for a mobile device, a tablet or a refrigerator screen. Some marketers might choose that route, and the foldable screen — with all its permutations — could become just another set of destinations.
But a foldable screen also offers several unique attributes, including folding and unfolding actions, and the ability for one device to become a much larger or smaller one.
Derek David, a web developer for Sozoe Creative, emailed me that customers on foldable mobile screens will “be able to more easily complete complex actions like purchases or feedback forms on a larger form factor.” This could mean that the lower rate of sale conversions on smaller mobile screens, compared to desktops, could become a thing of the past.
Intent indicators. Sal Visca, CTO of e-commerce platform Elastic Path, pointed out that “the fact of unfolding [a screen] is an extremely strong indication of the user’s level of interest and engagement with the content,” meaning that unfolding or folding could become key events for interactivity and analysis, possibly on the level of a click. Unfolding certainly means the users want to read more content or in a larger format, but Visca notes that it could also mean the user is ready to fill out forms, make a purchase or otherwise engage with the content.
He also predicted that content flow charts will need to be redefined, so they can accommodate the progression of additional or higher resolution content when a screen is unfolded or its shape otherwise changed. And unfolding the screen may represent some real-world analogous action, like opening a wallet.
Convex, concave shapes. Changeable screens may also offer radical new form factors for marketers. Litha Ramirez, Director of Experience Strategy and Design Group at digital transformation agency SPR, told me “bendability introduces new shapes” that can incorporate a level of depth, such as convex or concave shapes, or even a cylinder. Foldable screens are “on the way to bendable screens,” she said, an evolution that might even lead to screens molded to a specific shape, like a character’s face.
A bending action on the screen could also “flip pages in a [virtual] book,” she envisioned, possibly combined with haptic feedback so users “feel” the page turns or other on-screen activity. A cylindrical screen might allow a marketer to turn a display into, say, a Coke can.
The potential impact, Ramirez said, is “huge,” since bendable/foldable screens could make any surface into any kind of changeable shape.
Hoping it’s not the Segway. In fact, if even a portion of the above predictions come true, malleable screens could turn the entire category of mobile into something different.
Currently, mobile marketing to pocket devices must account for their transportability, wirelessness and their small screen size.
If the latter factor is removed, then the category changes. In addition to possibly leading to more sales, such devices could be used more frequently for productivity tasks like word processing or sales presentations.
But, Ramirez said, let’s hope that malleable screens “don’t go the way of the Segway.”
As ingenious as that single-person motorized scooter is, she noted, its biggest issue has been that it is a solution without a clear problem, and the benefit hasn’t been enough for most people to warrant the adoption and the cost.
While bendable/foldable screens represent terrific opportunities for marketers, the pending question is: Are the benefits worth enough — for most people — to warrant the adoption, learning curve and cost?
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