Folding is hot, my friends. Small phones that fold out into big tablets and small laptops that fold out into bigger tablets. First, a whole slew of phone manufacturers showed off folding phones at CES and Mobile World Congress, and last week, Lenovo showed a prototype dual-screen PC. All the major players in the consumer electronics business are probably working on the problem, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Dell is experimenting with folding display computer designs as well.
Frank Azor, who runs much of Dell’s consumer computer business, was candid in a conversation with Gizmodo last week about the challenges of designing foldable devices. “We experiment with it all the time,” he said, referring to the components currently available to laptop makers like Dell and its rivals Lenovo and HP. Typically these companies aren’t making every single component in a device and are instead somewhat reliant on component makers, especially if they want to keep the cost of products down. This is especially true for displays. Nearly every laptop maker outsources its display manufacturing. It’s one reason displays typically only come in a few types and why you might crave something like, say, a 17-inch OLED display in a laptop but never get it. No one’s making it, and no computer company thinks it’s profitable enough to pay to develop one.
While Lenovo produced its own display for its prototype, Azor said that top manufacturers all have access to similar components and could cobble something together as well. He said that Dell has no plans to show off or even tease such a device any time soon. “Why haven’t you seen us come out with a foldable? Why isn’t it here? Because we’re not clear yet on how to do that just yet.”
Azor said the problem is that while the display tech might be getting close, the supporting technology necessary to make a super thin and light laptop that uses a touchscreen keyboard and folds out into a large tablet isn’t ready. “That’s a challenge,” he said.
First, there’s the issue of the keyboard. No one really likes typing on a software keyboard like those found on the iPad, and creating a touch input interface that’s as pleasing to interact with as a keyboard is a tricky software problem. “How do I touch it? How do I interact with it? Because I want a great experience around that,” said Azor. “That’s all a lot of work a lot of software work. A lot of human factors work. A lot of giving people devices and saying ‘Play with it. Tell us what you think. What do you love? What do you hate about it?’ Let’s go fix all the issues.”
Next, there’s the push and pull between the battery, which will have to get smaller thanks to the small form factor of the device, and the display, which is suddenly a lot larger. “When you look at how we build notebooks today. They’re large in their footprint,” Azor said. “But they have one screen that allows me to have, let’s say, a 5- to 10-watt component—and a big beefy battery to power that single 5- to 10-watt component. Now you do two of those 5- or 10-watt components in a smaller form factor, and I don’t have a big beefy battery anymore? So battery capacity is going down, and consumption is going up.”
For Azor, another challenge is the silicon that you’d need to power this tiny device with a small battery and big battery hogging display. “You have this really, really, really small form factor,” he said. “Well, what do you put in, in terms of silicon, into that really, really, really small form factor? Really, really small silicon. Well, guess what the problem with really, really small silicon is? It’s not just expensive, it’s not that fast.” In particular, according to Azor, it’s not fast enough to power all those additional pixels you’ve packed into the display.
“So those are all the things that we’re wrestling with, and fighting with, and trying to figure out, and we have to time it to when can the technology mature itself to a certain level that the experience is going to be phenomenal.”
Azor doesn’t think the tech is quite there yet, but assured me that “once we’re probably 95 percent of the way there? And we know we can figure it out? Then we may come out and say ‘All right here’s something we think we want to go do.’”
It sounds like it could be time to temper that enthusiasm for the folding display laptop. At least until Lenovo announces a ship date or price for its own design. Who knows, maybe it’s figured out something the other guys haven’t.