They swivel around each other, one of them morphs into a keyboard, they fold, they blend into one… multiple displays seem to be the flavor of the year right now. Well, when it comes to displays, mobile device manufacturers from Samsung to Huawei to Microsoft suddenly seemed to have realized that one is certainly not enough. Suddenly, two or more displays or a single display that can act as two, are the next big things in tech.
The truth, however, is that multiple displays on a mobile device are nothing new. In fact, one of the most successful phones of all time had two displays.
Remember the Moto RAZR?
It had a display on the outside which gave you information on who was calling or who had texted you. And well, you flipped open the phone to actually take the call or use the keyboard. And no, the RAZR was not a one-off, other phone manufacturers tried the same, albeit with relatively limited success. A big concern in those days, I remember, used to be battery life as two displays inevitably increased battery drain. The RAZR was not the only device to be a rage with two displays.
The RAZR is not an aberration. One of the most successful portable consoles also had a dual display. The Nintendo DS.
It folded out to reveal two displays, and which thanks to a very innovative control system became a rage worldwide, and is still spawning sequels.
And then there was the Nokia Communicator series, best epitomized by the E90 in 2007, which literally gave you two devices in one – a normal-looking phone and keyboard outside and when opened, a larger display and a full QWERTY keyboard for a mini-notebook experience on the inside.
So, notwithstanding all the hue and cry and hype over their most recent versions, multiple displays are not exactly new. We have had three devices with the legendary status that had two displays in fact, and which enjoyed significant commercial success.
The big question to ask then, is: why haven’t dual displays become mainstream? It wasn’t as if other brands did not try to follow the example of the DS and the RAZR. They were hardly low-profile devices that sold a handful of units. They were massive popular devices with massive followings. And yet hardly anyone else has been able to make dual (or more) displays count.
The reason for this is simple: most of the other devices simply did not deliver enough value or did not work smoothly enough. Lenovo brought out a notebook with a touchscreen display (the YogaBook) in late 2016 and another touchscreen panel that could be used for sketching or typing. However, users were not too comfortably typing on a touch surface and the sketching functionality was also limited.
Then there was Sony that came out with a tablet (the Tablet P) in 2012 that could be folded down the middle and opened up to show two displays, which could be used as a single large display or with one as a keyboard (input) and the other as the main display. It was insanely innovative but came a cropper because the software could not keep pace with it, and because of a host of other use case issues (the case itself had very sharp edges, for instance). And even before these two, Toshiba tried a double display notebook, the Libretto W105 in 2010. Again, it got everyone raving about its innovative design, but people did not exactly queue up to buy it.
So what was it about the Nintendo DS, the Communicator and the RAZR that made them click with two screens, even while others did not?
Well, people may have their theories about their success, but I firmly believe it was because the two displays offered genuine utility to the user. The external display of the RAZR let you see who was calling without having to flip open the phone, and genuinely shrunk the size of the phone, while also giving you a much larger keyboard when you flipped it open. The DS, on the other hand, let you use touch controls without actually having to touch the larger display on which the action was being seen. It added a whole new UI experience, one that made gaming very different from the button mashing exercise it had become. Nokia’s E90 made the external and internal displays were almost different creatures – the outer one was a routine phone, the inside one almost a mini-notebook. The user was getting something extra. Something extra that was genuinely useful.
In all three cases, it was not just the hardware that was cool, it was the user experience that made a difference. And you were getting something that you normally would not on other devices.
Oh, and one more thing – while all three were definitely premium and high-end devices, none of them were priced at crazy levels. There were always more expensive devices much more expensive ones.
It is this that the new generation of foldable and multiple display devices will have to keep in mind. And at the time of writing, I am not too sure whether they are doing so. For, while there is no doubting the innovative engineering that lies behind the likes of a Surface Neo or a Galaxy Fold, at the end of the day, both devices are just trying to be more compact tablets that can be folded and carried around. The big question is: are we actually looking for smaller tablets? Their increasing size (even Apple has moved to a 10.2 inch iPad) would indicate otherwise. In fact, at the time of writing, many flagship phones are coming with displays that are very close to the 7-inch size of Google’s own first Nexus tablet. I would love to be proved wrong, but the stark fact is that there does not seem to be a huge demand for tablets that fold down into a smaller form factor (and become rather odd-looking phones). It looks cool as hell but in terms of usability? And do not even get me started on the prices.
For this to change, I suspect that the focus of the new devices will need to shift from sheer hardware and design excellence to actual utility. From form to functionality. Yes, the RAZR looked snazzy, but there were phones that looked as good that came a cropper, simply because they did not offer the utility it did. Yes, the DS allowed you to carry console gaming inside something that looked like a pencil box but gaming on it was a whole new experience. Yes, the E90 combined two devices in one, but it did so seamlessly and gave you the joys of a normal phone and an enterprise device in one device! Crucially none of them came with super-niche pricing. although all were expensive, they remained firmly accessible to a relatively large number of consumers.
The new generation of foldables gives you a display…and a larger display, both with essentially the same UI, at the time of writing. Basically a tablet and a phone in one, or if one is really ambitious, a tablet and a sort of notebook in one – the notebook touch would have been kind of nice if only the tech road was not littered with the bodies of gadgets that tried to make you type on a touchscreen just as you would on a notebook. The current generation of foldables are great specimens of engineering, they do not seem to address a consumer need or even to be creating a new segment.
They are just cool as hell. But cool as hell does not always sell.
Which is why their manufacturers need to ignore the fanboys screaming that they have “seen the future” after seeing a device with a foldable display. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.
And history has not been kind to foldables and multiple display devices. With the three very notable exceptions we have pointed out.
Could the future be foldable?
But a lot of work needs to be done to ensure that it unfolds that way.
Else, it could just fold up.
Like it did.
In the past.