Fabulous Folding Phones

October 14, 2019 Clive Maxfield

Microsoft doubles up with its dual screen Surface Duo (Image source: Microsoft)

I like to think that I'm riding the crest of the technology wave, but every now and then something slips past my eagle eye and then leaps out to surprise me when I least expect it. Such was the case when I ran across the fact that Microsoft is planning on rolling out a fabulous folding smartphone called the Surface Duo in 2020. We will return to this in a moment, but first...

Life Before Cellphones

Way back in the mists of time, when I was a young lad whose job it was to scare the dinosaurs away from the family's cabbage fields, the only phone we had was a black rotary dial beast that was hard-wired into the wall at the end of the hallway. Even local calls cost a few pennies a minute, so you had to ask your parents for permission before calling a friend. At that time, we had to call the operator if we wanted to talk to my aunts and uncles in Canada (you couldn’t direct-dial from England to North America or vice versa until around 1971).

When I was a student at university, arranging plans for Friday night with my friends involved rounds of phone calls. Eventually, we all settled on a time and location in the town center. Once the plans had been made, there was no going back, and woe betide you if you were late and the crowd had moved on, because there was no easy way to track anyone down. Now, by comparison, the plans of my son and his friends are so fluid and change so many times that, on occasion, they've spent so much time planning that they’ve run out of time to actually do anything.

I remember when one of my friends purchased one of the first cordless phones that were commercially available in the UK circa the early 1980s. We all watched in amazement as he walked around his house carrying on a conversation with the operator (there was no one else for him to call because we were all at his house).

The first handheld mobile phone was demonstrated by Martin Cooper of Motorola in 1973. Standing on a street corner in Manhattan, Martin called his rival, Joel Engel, at Bell Systems to tell him that the race to build the first cell phone had been won. I got to chat with Martin a few years ago, and he told me that passersby gave him a wide berth and funny looks because they didn’t know what he was doing. He also told me that, after talking to Joel, he decided to call his mom, but while doing so he absentmindedly stepped off the curb and almost gained fame as the world’s first cell phone fatality.

Since this early phone was the size of a house brick and weighed in at around 2.5 pounds, you could only hold it to your ear for a very short time, but that wasn’t too much of a problem since the battery could only support about 30 minutes of talk time before dying.

Bigger is Better (Or is it Smaller?)

Over time, cell phones got smaller and smaller, with evermore innovative designs, like the StarTAC from Motorola, which was released in early 1996 and was the first ever flip phone. In fact, one of the jokes going around in the late 1990s and early 2000s was that mobile phones were the only things men boasted about having the smallest of.

And then came the first iPhone in 2007. The combination of its iconic interface (in more ways than one), its touch screen, its myriad sensors, and its ability to detect its orientation and redraw the display accordingly proved to be a game-changer.

Since that time, smartphones have grown larger and larger, and we use them for more and more things. They are advanced computers in their own right, augmented with capabilities like GPS, image and video capture, the ability to play music, read books, compose emails, write notes… the list goes on.

When it comes to screen real estate, bigger is certainly better, and dual-screen folding phones offer a very tasty solution, not the least that you can use one screen as a keyboard while the other acts as a display.

Actually, I was surprised to discover that some of these little rascals are almost with us, like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, with a starting price of $1,980, and the Huawei Mate X, with a price tag around $2,550. When opened out, the Galaxy Fold boasts a 7.3-inch screen that folds into itself when you wish to stash it away. By comparison, the Huawei Mate X sports an 8-inch screen that wraps around the outside of the device when its folded.

All of which brings us back to the forthcoming Microsoft Surface Duo. This little scamp will flaunt two 5.6-inch touchscreen displays linked by a 360-degree hinging system, which will allow the screens to face inwards or outwards when folded. Although no information has been provided on pricing, Microsoft says that the Surface Duo will be released in the holiday season of 2020 (whatever that means, because every day is a holiday in Max’s World, where the butterflies are bigger and brighter, the flowers are more colorful and fragrant, and the birds sing louder and sweeter).

It’s a funny old world when you come to think about it. If you had taken one of the small flip-phones from the 1990s back to show the early cell phone users in the 1970s, they would have drooled over how small it was. “Well, that’s progress for you,” they would have said. Similarly, if you were to take one of today’s state-of-the-art folding phones back to show flip-phone users of the 1990s, they would drool over how big it was and, once again, would have said something like, “Well, that’s progress for you.”

What are your thoughts on all of this? Do you hanker back to the days when smaller was better, or are you excited by the bigger and bolder devices that are heading our way?

About the Author

Clive Maxfield


Clive "Max" Maxfield received his BSc in Control Engineering in 1980 from Sheffield Hallam University, England and began his career as a designer of central processing units (CPUs) for mainframe computers. Over the years, Max has designed everything from silicon chips to circuit boards and from brainwave amplifiers to steampunk Prognostication Engines (don't ask). He has also been at the forefront of Electronic Design Automation (EDA) for more than 30 years.

Well-known throughout the embedded, electronics, semiconductor, and EDA industries, Max has presented papers at numerous technical conferences around the world, including North and South America, Europe, India, China, Korea, and Taiwan. He has given keynote presentations at the PCB West conference in the USA and the FPGA Forum in Norway. He's also been invited to give guest lectures at several universities in the US and at Oslo University in Norway. In 2001, Max "shared the stage" at a conference in Hawaii with former Speaker of the House, "Newt" Gingrich.

Max is the author of a number of books, including Designus Maximus Unleashed (banned in Alabama), Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics), EDA: Where Electronics Begins, FPGAs: Instant Access, and How Computers Do Math.

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