The tech press is going to spin-cycle this thing to death, but it doesn’t matter. All the hand-wringing over Apple getting left behind or their lack of innovation isn’t going to change the playbook that has made them one of the wealthiest companies in the world. They aren’t going to be coming out with a new foldable phone this year, no matter what anyone says. Next year? Maybe. You can probably put money on it by 2021.
But that’s an eternity in the tech world, right? How can Apple be so late to the party? How could they not see this coming? Ok, let’s get back to reality. Let’s go ahead and get the obvious out of the way. Apple is NEVER FIRST TO DO ANYTHING. EVER. They weren’t the first company to make a graphical GUI. They weren’t the first to make portable music players. They weren’t the first to make tablets. Smartwatches. Wireless earbuds. I could keep going, but if you don’t get it by now, you never will.
Apple is always “late.” Just how late varies by category. They came to the phone game long after smartphones became a commonplace item. Tablets had been around for years. There were plenty of music players before the iPod shook things up. Apple used to have the luxury of taking their time.
That isn’t the case anymore. Apple has had to move a little quicker than they used to because so many companies have done a good job of copying their business model. Samsung started off their run at the iPhone with cheaply made knockoff designs that were packed with all kinds of features. However, they got smart along the way and started using premium materials and actually paying attention to look and feel. Huawai, once known for cheap knockoffs, has also upped its game and is making high quality hardware at premium prices. Because the competition has gotten smarter and learned how to match and sometimes beat them at their own game, Apple is having to adapt. They don’t have the luxury to wait a long time before entering a new market with a shot to take it over.
This new reality means things can go both ways for Apple depending on how long it takes them to enter a new market and how quickly the competition can get ramped up and get ahead of them. In the case of the Apple Watch, several companies got a six month to one year head start on them. Then, the first Apple Watch debuted to good reviews, but it still wasn’t fully baked or ready to be a mainstream hit.
This didn’t stop Apple, as their Series One, Two, Three and now Four Watch releases have successively absorbed pretty much all the mindshare in the smartwatch space. There are still plenty of other companies left in the market, some of which have carved out niches for themselves. However, no other company has an ecosystem that even comes close to approaching the Apple Watch. This was a classic example of Apple coming in late and mopping the floor with competition.
Even though the Apple Watch was a success, Apple doesn’t always get the timing right today. They were too late, too expensive and not polished enough with the HomePod. By the time Apple finally got their first speaker out the door, Amazon and Google had already worked out the rough edges and built meaningful ecosystems for their connected speakers. Apple was at least a year too late to market and the HomePod’s sales and market share numbers reflect that.
I own a HomePod and I love the sound quality, but that isn’t enough to spur mainstream sales of a connected speaker. Apple has got to improve Siri and broaden the appeal of HomeKit. It seems like they are finally serious about doing both of these things, but they have a lot of ground to make up before the HomePod and its successors are in the same conversation with Amazon and Google. This is the price of being too late to the market.
So now we come to foldable phones. Everyone who keeps up with mobile technology knew these were coming for the last couple of years. There are no secrets in tech anymore. It was just a matter of when they would hit and who would be first. Now the dust is finally settling on the first two big reveals from, you guessed it, Samsung and Huawai. To be frank, Samsung’s is just a glorified and very expensive tech demo. The phone section is awkward and it is just chunky and clunky looking folded up. This isn’t meant to disparage Samsung, either. It’s just a gen one product in a new category.
Huawai’s first foldable Mate phone looks considerably better than Samsung’s offering, but it still isn’t without its awkwardness. It sports a plastic screen (blech) and clip to hold it in place. It’s also an even more expensive gen one tech demo than Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. However, I do have to give Huawai props for coming up with a much better looking and better designed first attempt than Samsung.
Now, did anyone really expect Apple to get in on foldable phones right now? This is the very edge of the bleeding edge. This is only a little ways past Google Glass, paying a lot of money to be a glorified beta tester territory. Apple NEVER does this. Why would they start now? The Apple Watch is the closest they have come to the bleeding edge threshold and it was still a full year after the first mainstream smartwatches started hitting the market.
You could also say the same about 5G, as Apple has never put first gen cell radios in an iPhone. They wait at least a year until some of the bugs are killed off and the chipsets are optimized for more efficiency and better battery life. This time will be no different, as there are already reports from Intel that it will be 2020 at the earliest for them to release a 5G radio for Apple. Again, this is what Apple does.
This is a good point for a little context. Apple is always researching new products and form factors and foldable phones and screens are no different. In fact, Apple’s first patent in this area was all the way back in 2011. That’s right. eight long years ago. You can bet that there is already a working foldable iPhone prototype somewhere in Jony Ive’s lab. This is not a category that has snuck up on Apple. Not even close. However, none of this tells us when Apple will make a move, or where the market will be when that happens.
The key determining factor for Apple’s success or failure in foldable devices is going to come down to their timing. Samsung, Huawai and others aren’t going to be standing still in the meantime. They are going to be learning from their first gen hardware and quickly making improvements. These two companies have proven that they can make quality hardware and refine things quickly. As with connected speakers, if Apple does wait around too long, they will come into the foldables market markedly behind.
All that said, I don’t think Apple will make this mistake if…..IF this looks like a worthwhile category to get into. It likely will be, but there have been other innovations that have fallen flat in the past. If foldables fizzle like 3D phones did years ago, then Apple will pass. Again, I think foldables will ultimately become popular when the prices come down to current premium smartphone levels, but that may be a while.
So what will Tim Cook do? Will Apple enter the foldables fray next year at typical Apple prices? That’s a tough one. I would love to see them be aggressive this time, but my gut tells me it will be late 2020 to 2021 before we see a foldable iPhone. Until then, you can bet there will be an endless stream of rumors to keep us company.