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If the foldable phones of the future look like this, count me in

Commentary: While phones with folding screens might not make sense to you now, here's a nod to the magic they could eventually create.

Jason Hiner VP & Editor in Chief of ZDNET
Jason Hiner is Vice President and Editor in Chief of ZDNET. He was formerly Senior Editorial Director of CNET Advice and Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic.
Jason Hiner
4 min read
Nokia Morph

Nokia's "Morph" concept was a forerunner of the foldable phones we're starting to see today.

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I was once at an event with journalists and tech leaders when Nokia showed off an animated video of the most visionary concept of the foldable phone of the future that I've seen. Believe it or not, it was in 2008. The animation featured a ridiculously thin slab of glass that, after you were done sending messages and taking calls, could tri-fold down into a small surface and then fold around your wrist -- like a slap bracelet -- and essentially transform into a smartwatch.

Even among journalists, who are normally about as demonstrative as Secret Service agents, there were audible gasps in the room. These were the days before tech companies planted their own company cheerleaders at conferences and events, so those intakes of breath were real.

Of course, the previous June, Apple had released the iPhone to long lines of eager customers and much general fanfare. The big phone leaders of the time -- Nokia , BlackBerry , Palm, Motorola  and Microsoft -- continued outselling Apple by huge margins. Publicly, they even sometimes tossed dismissive laughter at the iPhone, while privately they were panicked about trying to match Apple.

Nokia's research team produced the most imaginative response to the iPhone with the Nokia "Morph." Of course, the technologies to bring the Morph to life were not nearly advanced enough in 2008. The Morph was mostly science fiction, but the tech industry knows the power of science fiction to inspire real-life products. The foldable OLED displays on phones that we're about to see in the coming weeks and months are an important step forward on that journey.

Foldables have already slipped into pole position as the next big thing in mobile, despite the fact that most of you probably aren't sure why you'd want one at the moment.

While Samsung is leading the current wave with its Galaxy Fold, Huawei , Xiaomi,  Lenovo and Motorola are all confirmed or rumored to be entering the foldable fray, and Google has officially committed Android support for foldable screens. Even Apple applied for a foldable phone patent in 2017 -- but don't expect a folding iPhone any time soon.

The reality is that the foldable phones you're going to see in 2019 are mostly teasers. You won't have much trouble thinking of reasons why you wouldn't want the foldable devices that are about to dominate the headlines. They're going to be twice as thick as today's phones when folded, and too big to fit in most pockets when unfolded. With all that extra screen to power, they're going to be battery hogs. There will also be very few apps and software experiences optimized to take advantage of their possibilities.

Close up with the Galaxy Fold's original screen, notch and hinge

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The most interesting thing about folding phones isn't the first steps you'll see in 2019, but the new world they will open up for powerful designs like the Nokia Morph in the years and decades ahead.

In the short term, the devices are going to try something a little more straightforward. The foldable smartphones that come out in 2019 are going to make their pitch as phones that double as tablets . They're going to be bulky, awkward and expensive, but the people who buy them will mostly be bleeding-edge early adopters who want a peek at the future. You can also count in a few innovators who want to be seen as tech-forward, because pulling out a folding phone will certainly attract attention.

But the future of phones that convert into tablets will potentially get far cooler and more functional in the years ahead. The radical thinness that OLED screens can achieve is going to unlock some pretty incredible options for product designers -- even just for phones that simply convert into tablets.

Picture a phone about the size of today's leading phablets -- the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 , the iPhone XS Max, or the Huawei Mate 20 Pro -- but the device has a hidden trick. Imagine you can swipe across the screen with a specific gesture and the screen folds out and essentially doubles itself, as I heard a product designer once speculate. The bottom of the phone on the main unit serves as the grip or handle -- similar to the Amazon Kindle Oasis.

Watch this: Foldables, 5G and the future of the iPhone in 2019

This device obviously wouldn't work with a case and so it would need to have a more grippy surface than today's phones, but you get the picture. You have a core device that can transform from an ultraportable candy-bar mode to a larger tablet mode for viewing content and working. Combined with a future version of a docking technology like the Samsung DeX -- albeit wireless -- this device could have even bigger potential.

Then, the next step for foldable phones will be transforming into wearables. As CNET's Shara Tibken reported on Saturday, TCL is already working on a smartphone that could bend around your wrist to become a smartwatch. But the vision of phones that could transform into wearables is far bigger than TCL's concept, as we saw more than a decade ago with the Nokia Morph.

Let's not forget that this computer we carry in our pockets is a modern miracle. To call it a phone is like calling the Space Shuttle an airplane. Even just two decades ago, if you would have told us everything we would be doing with these little machines today, most of us would have been pretty dumbstruck.

What these devices do two decades from now and how they continue to advance is not likely to slow down anytime soon. So don't judge the baby steps of foldable phones by the designs you'll see in 2019, because their future is going to be far more magical. It's likely to be a lot closer to the Nokia Morph.

CES 2019: Hands-on with the foldable, bendable Royole FlexPai phone

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Originally published 6.01 a.m. PT.
Update, 6.57 p.m. PT: Added more details about the Samsung Galaxy Fold.