Business

Counterclockwise: flip phones rise with the tide then sink

The first flip phone dates back to 1996 the Motorola StarTAC thats essentially the Jurassic Period of mobile phones. And at one point the hottest handset in the world was a flip phone (Motorola again with the RAZR V3). And now they are all but gone aside from the occasional featurephone with essentially 2004 hardware and the rare China-only flip smartphone.

What happened? Well, we can tell you right now that the asteroid struck in 2007 that year saw a precipitous drop in new flip models being introduced but also a major fall in consumer interest.

Lets rewind. The clamshell design makes sense when the user interface is built around a screen-and-keyboard combo. Laptops figured that out long ago a large screen and large keyboard are great to have but unwieldy to carry around. Fold the whole thing in half, however, and you have a winner (with the extra bonus that screen and keyboard are not safely tucked inside).

As with the sliders the culprit the proverbial asteroid once again seems to be the touchscreen phone. The iPhone and company made hardware keyboards obsolete and with that the reason to flip or slide evaporated (you can see its the crossover point in popularity).

To be fair, the form factor put up a fight. The Sony Tablet P cleverly tried to use the flip design to add a second screen a large screen in a small body is what everyone wanted, right? Years later the ZTE Axon M performed the same trick. Neither of these proved particularly successful.


Motorola StarTAC 75
Motorola RAZR V3
Sony Tablet P
ZTE Axon M

Motorola StarTAC 75 Motorola RAZR V3 Sony Tablet P ZTE Axon M

Lets look at laptops again, why didnt tablets kill them the same way touch phones killed the flip phone? At a guess, the gorilla arm effect makes using large touchscreen for prolonged periods (e.g. a full work day) impractical (in short, you have to keep your arm extended to use large touchscreens, which is tiring).

Thats why touch-enabled laptops are fairly rare (if you have one, whens the last time you used touch?). Laptops did try the two-screen trick, but that didnt catch on either.

Phones are small enough that your arm doesnt get tired, but apparently people found the mid-screen bezel objectionable enough that dual-screened flip phones never caught on.

What if theres no bezel splitting the screen? Thats the promise of foldable phones these flexible screens will let you make the phone as large or as small as you want. They will be the be-all and end-all of smartphone design.

Well have to wait and see if the foldable RAZR can avenge its grandfather or if the pesky bar phones will slay it like they did the V3.