Earlier this week, reports started circulating that Apple is testing out folding screen samples from Samsung for potential use in future products. This is certainly notable, since Apple already sources most of it’s OLED screens from them and because Samsung is putting so much R&D emphasis on folding screen tech. However, while some may see this as a sign that a folding iPhone is inevitable and coming soon, I just see it as business as usual at Apple.
Foldables aren’t new to Apple
We have already seen previous patents from Apple covering foldable tech, so there is documented evidence that they’ve been researching it, along with everyone else in the tech industry. The basic assumption should always be that, if it’s a potentially viable product, someone in product design and/or engineering at Apple has already prototyped it. You could safely bet the house that both foldable and dual screen mockups or prototypes of the iPhone have existed and will continue to be made and refined.
However, nothing about what I just said guarantees that Apple will ever bring a folding device to market. We are still in a phase where the price is too high for mass adoption of foldables, so it’s currently difficult to see how big the true market potential is. And no, I’m not talking about people like myself and most of the people reading this page. WE are not enough of a market to create a new mainstream device category for.
The bottom line for Apple is this- if foldables don’t go mainstream, they will never release one. Personally, I believe that foldables likely will, at least in some form or fashion at some point. However, that point may be years from now and the best application may end up being a form factor that we still haven’t seen yet. Don’t expect Apple to jump into this field until more is understood about the real utility of such a device.
On the edge
Apple is rarely ever first with a new product category. They do occasionally debut features first and they often are the first to take a relatively new feature mainstream first (capacitive screens, biometric security for mobile devices, mobile payments, etc). However, other than creating the ultraportable laptop with the MacBook Air, this is not a direction that Apple often goes in.
While I think a couple of categories like intelligent speakers and TV set-top boxes are exceptions, Apple’s greatest strength is that it typically times its new product lines with the moment when the messy and somewhat dangerous bleeding edge becomes the leading edge. Just look at the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods and others for plenty of examples of this near perfect release timing. They know when a category is ready to go mainstream. I would argue that Apple was a year or two too early on the smartwatch, but not so early that they turned the buying public off with a messy first generation hardware and software. Again, their timing is nearly perfect
By all accounts, Samsung has made massive strides with it’s second major foldable device, the Galaxy Z Fold 2. Let’s be completely honest- there was nowhere to go but up after last year’s embarrassing fiasco, but it looks like they learned from their mistakes and have launched a better than competent folding screen phone this time out. However, we still have no idea how well this thing is going to hold up long-term yet and it still costs close to two grand for the privilege of being a beta tester (last year was no better than alpha).
This point is still too early for Apple. If they wanted to enter the field right now, I could see them taking the more known route with a dual screen device like the Surface Duo, but actually delivering a product that is competent, which Microsoft unfortunately but unsurprisingly failed to pull off. However, Apple doesn’t tend to invest in short-term solutions, and all dual-screen devices are right now are stop gaps until folding screen tech is more mature. I don’t think Apple will take that road only to switch over later. If they are going to start down the path of designing a product for future release, then they are likely going to take the long-term view and design and engineer a true foldable device.
Just don’t hold your breath. We’ve been hearing rumors of Apple working with Mini-LED screen tech for use in upcoming Apple Watches for a few years now. It still isn’t ready for prime time. We’ve heard about Apple’s AR and VR ventures for a couple of years and their car projects even longer, but we have no clue when a product is coming out of any of these initiatives. Foldables will be the same way. Apple isn’t going to release a product until they feel like they can release THEIR product. A mainstream product that has their design and polish and that large numbers of people will want to own.
This approach to new tech usually works out for Apple. In the case of the HomePod, it’s easy to say in hindsight that it didn’t. I don’t know if foldables will blindside them and develop fast the way that the intelligent speaker market did, but the company is going to take its time, either way.
No matter what we as tech fans want from Apple, expecting a foldable device from them anytime in the next two years is just unrealistic if you know anything about the company. That said, what Samsung and others are doing with foldable phones is great. We need companies to push the limits of newer technologies and they have to be willing to spill a little milk and break a few eggs along the way. Samsung has proven for years that they are ok with that. They are also willing to release niche products that are little more than tech fan service. You know, like a early folding screen phone that costs $2,000. Apple hasn’t been that company for at least two decades and they still aren’t today, so don’t get too excited when you hear that they are kicking the tires on Samsung’s folding screens.