Folds and Phones

IFA is over and Berlin can return to normal for a while. As expected, a three-year hiatus from the show (for me) didn’t reveal too much in the way of huge leaps forward. But they were there if you looked closely, hinting at things to come. 

Display innovation obviously took a leading role at the show. Several OEMs – Lenovo and ASUS among others – showed off laptops that were essentially one giant screen that folded just like a laptop. The “bottom” half of the screen could be used as a virtual keyboard or, for those of us in need of a more tactile response, there was a clip-on real keyboard. Of course, that kind of defeats the point as you are then carrying a folded screen and a separate keyboard. But that’s a niggle: the display tech is impressive. 

LG took folding screens in a different direction, demonstrating a monitor that could adapt from a flat screen to a curved monitor at the click of a button. Real world applications for such a device may be limited, but the concept is very clever, and we should really view it as a sign of display technology to come, rather than a real-world implementation – hey isn’t that the point of trade shows anyway? 

Samsung, of course, had its latest range of foldable phones to show off – lighter and better than the previous iterations. But the real news there was talk of what will come next: Samsung talked up the idea of a double fold device (so three screens) that will provide a wider-screened result when stretched out. But more interesting was talk of a camera on the side of the future device that will capture your had-written notes that you write on a standard notebook next to the phone. That technology may be available next year and is an interesting fusion of new tech with old-school handwriting. Time will tell. 

Sustainability in Tech 

The show was not just about tech innovation: there was also a strong focus on sustainability and carbon footprints. This started at the show entrance where a name badge was not required if you had your ticket on the app. This made finding your next meeting contact a little harder, but it is definitely time we cut down on name tags and other disposable paraphernalia associated with conferences. And who knows, eventually we’ll see augmented reality solutions that will help us find our next contact. 

HMD embraced the eco-push with an interesting smartphone angle. Called Nokia Circular (HMD licenses the Nokia brand for phones) the offering is a leased-device solution. You don’t buy the phone; you lease it. And as part of the deal, you get ongoing support for the hardware. The “Circular” part comes when you decide to part with your phone. Rather than throwing it in a drawer you give it back to HMD, which promises to dispose of it in an environmentally-conscious way (recycling the key components, or re-furbing the device to lease again or pass on to a charity). And while you own the device, some of the lease fee is used to give back, through carbon offsets such as tree planting, or by helping to provide cellular service to parts of the world that are under-supported. 

But the real key here is that HMD/Nokia is attempting to create a differentiated marketing approach to drive sales (okay, “leases”). The mid-tier market where HMD exists is a tough space: device specs are all rather similar and the device price seems to be an aggressive race to the bottom. By pulling price (somewhat) out of the equation with the leasing model, HMD may be able to carve out a stronger niche. Having said that, if the company really wants to leverage the “circular economy” approach, it needs to develop devices that make use of recycled components, rather than simply helping with the final recycling aspect. Will this work in the U.S.? Perhaps, if the price is as low – or lower – than the carrier equipment installation plans. Sprint, for example, dabbled with the lease concept prior to its acquisition by T-Mobile. But perhaps the trick here would be for retailers to embrace the idea as an alternative to carrier equipment installation plans, rather than individual OEMs. 

Privacy at a new level 

Data privacy is proving to be an opportunity in the mobile market. Apple, of course, embraced this early on with its “What happens on an iPhone stays on an iPhone” campaign (launched in Vegas to coincide with CES). But for those phone users that are a little less trusting, there’s a German phone brand trying to carve out a niche. 

Volla, based in Germany, offers a smartphone based on Linux (the Volla OS) that apparently leaks no data into the cloud. Yes, you may say, but what about the obvious: what about mapping? Easy, as with several other key apps, Volla has built its own. It also comes with an optional VPN to make things even more secure. And if you don’t like the Volla OS, the phone supports multi-boot, meaning you can have an alternative OS, such as Ubuntu, on the phone as well. 

Will it be a major hit? Probably not as it is clearly aiming at a fairly niche market. But it shows that alternatives to the duopoly of Android and iOS are possible. And perhaps, that was the most exciting part of IFA: it provided multiple future paths that offer the glimmer of a broader base of devices and ecosystems, wrapped in a layer of sustainability and privacy. Will such paths survive the next few years? Perhaps not all of them, but hopefully enough to create a more interesting and diverse world.