Apple, looks like Google might have a foldable phone in front of you

Apple, looks like Google might have a foldable phone in front of you

Apple, looks like Google might have a foldable phone in front of you

We’re weeks away from Google I/O, the search giant’s annual software show, and all signs point to the company launching its first foldable phone: the Pixel Fold. There are a number of rumors and leaks about the Pixel Fold, which indicate that it will be a small tablet-sized device that folds in half to the size of a phone. It could be similar to Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 4. Heck, the Pixel Fold might even match the Z Fold’s $1,800 price tag.

If the Pixel Fold is announced at I/O, that would leave Apple as the only major US phone maker without a foldable device. Motorola has its Razr, remember, and earlier this year it showed off a concept of the Motorola Rizr, a phone with a rollable display that changes height. And outside the US, Huawei and Xiaomi also have foldable phones.

All of this leaves us with an obvious question: where is Apple’s foldable iPhone?

The iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro are seven months old, and despite rumors and speculation, the company hasn’t confirmed if a foldable iPhone is in development. It’s especially curious as Samsung continues to refine its line of foldable phones, such as with the release of the Galaxy Z Flip 4 and Galaxy Z Fold 4 last year.

Since we won’t know for sure if we’ll get an iPhone Fold or an iPhone Flip until they’re announced, I want to break down what it would take for Apple to create its first foldable based on everything we know about how it designs, builds and markets its hardware.

Apple does not comment on future products

The first thing to consider is that Apple doesn’t announce products until they’re ready. Well there was the AirPower wireless charging station. But otherwise, Apple isn’t going to tell us it’s working on a foldable iPhone or confirm the rumors.

Second, Apple generally positions products as a solution to a problem, emphasizing quality and innovation.

The Galaxy Z Fold feels less like an answer to a problem and more like a “look at this technological magic, what can we do with it?” And the cool factor, however nifty, comes at the expense of features we’ve come to expect from regular phones, including battery life, ergonomics, software experience, and price. The Galaxy Z Flip solves the portability problem, but it has some of the same drawbacks as the Fold, especially when it comes to battery life and camera quality.

To be fair, the Galaxy Z Fold 3 has taken a significant step forward by adopting its large main display and adding support for Samsung’s S Pen stylus. And the Z Fold 4’s improved Flex Mode for apps seems to tip the scales, making the Fold more useful than just cool.

If Apple released a foldable iPhone, what problem would it solve? Could it be an iPhone Flip, replacing the iPhone 13 Mini by giving you a big screen that still fits in your pocket? Or would it be an iPhone Fold – more like an iPad Mini that folds in half, making its closed size closer to that of the iPhone 13 Pro Max? Or will we see a design that does not yet exist? What about an iPhone Roll, where the the screen unrolls like an expanding window blind? This is where the rumors start to come into play.

Why does Apple need a foldable iPhone? What problem does it solve?

Celso Bulgatti/CNET

iPhone Fold Rumors

In January 2021, Mark Gurman wrote for Bloomberg that Apple “has begun early work on an iPhone with a foldable screen, a potential rival to similar devices from Samsung.”

And in May of that year, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said, as MacRumors reports, “Apple will likely launch a foldable iPhone with an 8-inch QHD Plus flexible OLED display in 2023.” He revised his prediction, in a tweet last april, to say that it might be until 2025 before there’s a foldable screen device from Apple. It’s also worth noting that Kuo’s tweet was on April Fool’s Day, which means it could have been an April Fool’s Day joke.

Both Gurman and Kuo have excellent track records when it comes to Apple rumors. So if these reports are accurate, we’ll see a foldable iPhone in 2025. It’ll be roughly the size of an iPad Mini, and it’ll fold in half. End of the story. But wait.

How to make a foldable iPhone

Before Apple makes a foldable iPhone, it needs to understand how make a foldable iPhone. Research firm Omdia reports that in 2021, 11.5 million foldable phones were shipped. Apple sells hundreds of millions of iPhones a year. So if it makes a foldable iPhone, it needs to be sure that it can make the phones with the same quality and in sufficient quantity to meet the demand. More often than not, when Apple introduces a drastic hardware change – like 2014’s iPhone 6 Plus and its larger screen – these models are hard to find at launch because they sell out quickly. Sometimes they are given a later release date, as we saw with the launch of the iPhone 12 Mini and 12 Pro Max.

Then there is the physical complexity that must be taken into account. Foldable phones have many mechanical parts that can malfunction or wear out, such as the hinge components that keep dust out and the various layers behind the foldable screen. In fact, when journalists tested review units of the original Galaxy Fold, the device was plagued with hinge and display issues. That was years ago, of course, and Samsung has since fixed these issues. But it shows what can happen with first-gen products.

If a foldable iPhone is in the works, Apple will likely innovate in its design to minimize the parts and mechanics involved, which should reduce the possibility of phones failing because something breaks. The Cupertino company has an excellent track record in this area.

When Apple released the iPhone 7, it replaced the home button with a fake home button, so there was one less mechanical part that could possibly break. And if you’ve ever owned or used a MacBook, you know Apple is at the top of its game when it comes to hinge design and reliability. Apple also sells AppleCare Plus, its repair and support service – and includes a global infrastructure to support it – which could help ease concerns about problems or accidental damage.

Apple’s iPad operating system has been separated from iOS, in part to accommodate even larger screens like this second monitor in the iPad OS 16 beta.

Apple/Screenshot by CNET

iOS and iPadOS would need an overhaul

And then there is the software. A user interface, Samsung’s name for its version of Android, has to be the most underrated aspect of the Galaxy Z Flip and Z Fold. These new designs should simultaneously do everything we’ve come to expect from current phones while creating new features that take advantage of their folding screens. They should also do all of these things perfectly, with no bugs or hiccups. And if Google releases the Pixel Fold, I would expect there to be better Android support for foldables.

For example, the Galaxy phones’ Flex mode has been around for years. Essentially, when the Fold or Flip is folded into an L-shape, like a mini laptop, the software moves an app to the top half of the screen while providing functionality at the bottom. Sounds cool and full of possibilities, right?

Well, until this year, this feature was limited. That’s why it’s important that Samsung’s Z Flip 4 and Z Fold 4 allow you to turn the bottom half of their screens into touchpads when in Flex mode. The company is now showing an additional advantage of the fold.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I would love to see even more software optimized for foldable phones. And I expect Apple to face the same challenges as Samsung, especially when adapting iOS and iPadOS.

In recent years, iOS and iPadOS separated as Apple created more iPad-specific features that wouldn’t make sense on an iPhone. A foldable iPhone, notably in the style of a Galaxy Z Fold 4, would require a meeting of the two operating systems. Or, Apple should develop a new software platform that can switch from tablet mode to phone mode.

Apple would likely develop a unique software feature (think iMessage or Portrait mode) to help make its foldable phone stand out from what everyone else is doing.

How much would you pay for a foldable iPhone?

Foldable phones don’t come cheap. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 starts at $1,800 and the Galaxy Z Flip 4 at $1,000. And it is not surprising that the prices of Apple products are already higher. So if an iPhone 14 Pro that doesn’t fold in half already costs $1,000, what would the price be for one that does?

For a foldable iPhone to succeed, Apple would need to create problem-solving design, scale manufacturing without sacrificing quality, and develop hardware as well as software that make the most of its foldable construction. The price should also be premium, but not too high.

So where is the foldable iPhone? Still in the oven.


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