This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Samsung and Huawei recently made big headlines with the official announcements of their first foldable phones: the Galaxy Fold and the Mate X. The upcoming phones were introduced to an enthusiastic reception – both fans and media alike are visibly excited by the news that the long-awaited technology of foldable OLED panels is finally ready for commercial use. Sure, the massive price tags both companies announced were quick to extinguish some of the flames, but people remain nonetheless excited that the technology is here. And if 2019 isn't the year that foldable phones truly propagate the market, then maybe next year will prove to be much more fruitful.
So, let's address the elephant in the room, shall we? Will, or maybe we should rather say how likely is Apple to release a foldable iPhone?
While we certainly can't be sure what Apple's currently working on in the labs, there are many reasons why Apple wouldn't want to release a foldable iPhone at this point. It might want to do so in the near future, but at least for the time being, Cupertino seems to be in a good spot and doesn't need to address this new niche right away. Why? Well, here's why...
– Despite the Fold and the Mate X, the technology is not ready yet
We all know that neither the Fold, nor the Mate X will be massive commercial hits – they aren't meant to be. These are near-experimental, generation-zero foldable smartphones that will serve to pave the way at best. And judging by the state of their production that we saw at MWC, it's quite possible that there are currently serious production issues with yield rates, not to mention the other design problems such as the uneven screens that we noticed in both the Samsung and the Huawei.
That Mate X screen doesn't seem very even...
At this point, it's evident why Apple wouldn't rush to announce a foldable phone – the technology is way too young and immature for Apple to produce a proper consumer product. For this to happen, many problems will need to be sorted out, like the display bumps in the middle, the durability of the panels, long-term reliability, elegance of the design, etc. Both the Fold and the Mate X are impressive, but look like prototype technology. Apple can't release such a product on the market.
Another issue is scale. When Apple does launch a foldable iPhone, it'll need to be able to produce those babies at scale. Right now, it's not clear if that's even possible, but the prohibitively high prices of the Galaxy Fold and Mate X suggest it's not. No one will be happy with an iPhone that takes forever to arrive, be it a foldable one.
– Apple will have to figure out what to do with the iPad business
Apple also has its iPad business to consider. Wouldn't a foldable iPhone cannibalize that? Suddenly, users may be OK with just buying a foldable iPhone, instead of an iPhone + iPad combo. We always talk how tablet sales as a whole are dwindling, but the volume of iPads Apple sells is still considerable. The number of iPads Apple moves each quarter is roughly equal to the number of Galaxy S phones Samsung manages to sell each quarter, so it's actually not small at all (about 10 million units).
The iPad is like an unfolded phone, but better.
This is also the place to mention that Apple generally doesn't like products that compromise with the core experience. If it's a phone, it needs to be slim and light. If it's a tablet, it needs to be big and powerful. A foldable iPhone right now will most certainly have to be quite thick and heavy. Samsung's and Huawei's foldables come in at roughly 300 grams – would you like carry this amount of weight in your pocket? Not only would this be a compromise with the good smartphone experience, but it'd also not be a real tablet experience, because the screen would still not be too big, and it's uncertain if many iPad features would be possible to implement at least initially, such as Apple Pencil support, a faster/hotter processor, more powerful speakers, etc.
– Apple doesn't like moving parts
It's a simple thing but it's true: hard drives got replaced by SSDs, sliders and clamshells gave way to the solid candybar, numpad and QWERTY keyboards got replaced by touchscreen ones, and so on and so forth. There's been a few bezel-less slider phones in the last year, but those won't stick around much longer. The reliability and effortlessness of the simple slate are way too good to give up.
Not that it can't be reliable, but moving parts always tend to be weak links.
So how would all that fit in with the idea of Apple making a foldable iPhone? Well, that's not to say that it's out of the question, but it'll surely take some time before the technology is mature enough for Apple to give it a go. Those hinges need to be very sturdy and reliable, and the same goes for the bendable displays. Who knows how much time it'll take before those components meet the requirements to be in a real consumer product that is both dope and practical. Still, the next big step in personal computing will likely be AR, and by the looks of it, this will take quite a while, so maybe there's going to be a good window in-between for us to see foldable phones truly have a moment. If that's the case, Apple will probably want to be part of it.
– It's good times for Apple right now, and there is no rush to create a foldable iPhone
As Apple is starting to run out of competition in the high end (Galaxy S9 sales were disappointing and there's no reason to believe the S10 family will do much better), things are shaping up pretty good for the iPhone this year (and the next). With the unsatisfactory results of Samsung's mobile division, it won't be shocking to see the Korean company decide to focus more of its attention on its foldable efforts in hopes of making something happen. This will leave even more room for Apple to make a killing in the $1000 price range (as much as the current market climate allows it).
In this scenario, it would make absolutely no sense for Apple to be in a hurry to release a foldable iPhone. They'd much rather take advantage of the moment, at least for a year, but maybe even two, depending on how quickly the foldable tech seems to mature, and then enter the new niche with a product that is polished, and right on time to capitalize on the surging awareness and interest in foldable phones.
+ A foldable iPhone will be a nice excuse for Apple to add a higher price tier
The folks from Apple are at least considering the idea of building a foldable phone, as demonstrated by these patent schematics.
Here's one reason why, despite the above points, Apple might be looking forward to designing its own folding phone. With the introduction of the iPhone X and the new iPad Pro, Apple unleashed its new strategy for growth: namely to find reasons to push its ASP (average selling price) higher, as an answer to more conservative demand for high-end phones.
A foldable iPhone at around $1500 would fit right in with this strategy, allowing Apple to add yet another price tier on top of what it currently has. However, this is one more reason why the time for a foldable iPhone is definitely not now – the prices of components will have to go down so that Apple may produce a commercially viable product. This would require a price considerably lower than the $2000 Samsung and Huawei are planning to charge for their foldables.
It's early to say with any degree of certainty whether there's going to be a foldable iPhone or not. We know there are some Apple patents dealing with related technologies, but then again – all companies have patents for everything, so these patents are in no way proof that a real product is coming. Depending on how things pan out with the first foldables (after all we're yet to see one reach the market), it could make sense for Apple to release a foldable iPhone at some point in the future, but definitely not right now. How far ahead? Maybe one year, maybe two years; three would probably be too late, but at least for the time being, we don't see the computing giant lose sleep over this emerging technology.
What are your thoughts about this? Do you think Apple should be in a hurry to produce an answer to Huawei's and Samsung's foldable devices, or do you think they should keep focusing on phones with standard form-factor for the time being? Let us know what you think in the comments!