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The bigger picture

Anthony Main argues that businesses should start preparing for the likely impact of foldable smartphones on apps and websites

With the launch of the Royole FlexPai and Samsung Galaxy Fold, and rumours of similar devices from Apple, LG, Motorola and Huawei, many app owners are becoming anxious about how foldable devices will impact their apps and websites.

What seems clear is that usage patterns are likely to change as users and app owners find new ways to take advantage of the many advances offered by foldable smartphones that marry larger screen sizes with a smaller, more convenient form factor. These include:

Improved productivity. The extra screen space will enable users to be more productive and use their devices more efficiently.

Multiple Screens. This could allow apps to segment and highlight key pieces of app information, such as notifications and live data, across the user interface (UI).

Multitasking. The additional screen space and ability for multiple apps to be used simultaneously could be perfect for ‘second screen’ apps, such as live voting on the X-Factor or Tweeting about the latest celeb gossip whilst reading news feeds.

Larger Keyboards. These will provide more space for the app UI and allow users to enter data more easily.

Desktop/Laptop Quality Apps. With devices’ greater capabilities, users will drive demand for more feature packed apps. Could this mean the end of computers at home?

The bigger picture

Be prepared

In preparation for the emergence of this new category of device, app owners and app developers will need to monitor developments closely over the coming months, paying particular attention to the following areas:

Hardware Announcements. It will be important to track the variety of devices coming to market and the different opportunities they present;

Platform Announcements. App owners are unlikely to invest in novel interfaces until support is provided directly by the operating system, which Google has already done for Samsung;

Device Specific. Each foldable device is likely to be different (based upon patents) and their uptake will determine which features are worth supporting from an app perspective. App owners will need to evaluate the options and balance the ROI on a device-by-device basis; and

Responsive Design. Smartphones/tablets come in a wide variety of sizes, resolutions and aspect ratios, and best practice has been to design app interfaces to resize to scale to each device’s screen. Continuing to do this will give an app the best opportunity of adapting to any unknowns on the horizon.

Likely timescales

Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy Fold is unlikely to be the only big announcement at February’s Mobile World Congress and what is revealed there will give a good indication of likely timescales.

What we know already is that while both Apple and Google generally only release major updates to iOS and Android in Q3, making it unlikely that there will be large-scale adoption before then, device manufacturers could develop bespoke Software Development Kits (SDKs) to allow app owners to harness device-specific hardware features well before they are adopted by the operating systems. Samsung, for example, first announced what was then called Galaxy X at a technical event, solely to drive adoption by app developers.

Because most platforms already support flexible screen sizes, device support may be possible from the outset, making it essential for app owners to begin their preparations immediately.

They should start by reaching out to their developers or specialist app agencies that are best placed to offer guidance on how to prepare their apps and websites and how to tailor them to take full advantage of this technological evolution.

Anthony Main is Managing Director of The Distance, a UK-based app development company. The Distance delivers intuitive mobile solutions for iOS and Android for a range of customers, from disruptive start-ups to global enterprises, including NHS, Bentley Motors, Virgin Trains, PGA Golf, Slimming World and Astra Zeneca.

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