If Apple doesn't get a foldable iPhone out the door within the next three years, will it be fashionably late, or just late? That's the question.
It's a question that can be asked about Apple time and time again, too. Apple wasn't the first to make a smartphone and it wasn't the first to put smarts into a watch, either. It wasn't the first to release earbuds without wires and it definitely won't be the first to make a smartphone bend in the middle. In all of those other cases, iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods have gone on to dominate the market in their own way — so you could argue that fashionably late is just late enough.
Will it be the same with a foldable iPhone?
This past weekend saw Bloomberg's Mark Gurman suggest it could be three years before a foldable iPhone is ready for sale. That isn't all that long in the grand scheme of things, but it'll be five years after Samsung's Galaxy Fold was announced. Five years is a long time, even by Apple standards.
Sure, people will point to Apple's previous products and say that it's a company that likes to get things right rather than be the first to market and, so far, that's an approach that has been difficult to argue with. It took its time putting OLED into phones, but it was the first major phone maker to ditch the headphone jack, too. When Apple wants to be "brave," it can be. So what's the hold up with bendy iPhones?
Apple must think, rightly or wrongly, that the current method of making foldables isn't up to the job. It might have a point Samsung's Fold problems are any indication. But Samsung's beginning to get things right and those who really want a foldable might not want to wait for Apple to get on board. This begs the question once more — how late is too late?
I don't know. But I do know I'd pay an embarrassing amount of money for a foldable iPhone right now. Three years seems so far away! I guess I'll just have to settle for iPhone 13 for now — it's sure to be the best iPhone yet, even if it's a big rigid for my liking!
Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.
Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.
Right now a foldable like the Galaxy Z Fold is impossible for Apple, because of Apples app ecosystem approach that they took. Think about it with me. Apple encourages their developers to make separate iPhone apps, and separate iPad apps, and this is true if you look at Apples app store as well, and within the last few years, Apple went down that path even further by separating the operating systems for iPhones and iPads. This makes it currently impossible for Apple and their developers to support an iPhone foldable that would unfold to an iPad type device, like the Galaxy Z Fold. Now Apple could make an iPhone Flip type phone, like the Galaxy Flip, or Moto Razr. But definitely not a Z Fold, or Mate X Fold type device. Android is able to make a Z Fold type device, because Google and Android encouraged their developers to make one app that supports smartphones and tablets, and that has been in place since day one. This also helps for app continuity as well when the user switches, or unfolds, or folds from smartphone to tablet, and back again. It's the same app. Where as Apple currently has two separate, and physically different apps for iPhones and iPads. Apple could make an iPhone Flip type device that would always stay as an iPhone, and only run iPhone apps. That could happen in 2 to 3 years, but I don't see Apple creating a Galaxy Z Fold type device in 5 years. Nevermind 2 or 3 years.
So a "foldable iPhone" would run iPadOS. Problems solved. The iPad mini does just fine with iPadOS. A phone that unfolds to the size of an iPad mini would be running iPadOS. iPads can already run 2 apps side by side. Or 1 app full screen. This is what is needed for a foldable. Think of it as an iPad that folds in half, instead of an iPhone that unfolds to 2 screens. I guarantee that Apple has already thought of this.
Clearly you are not an app developer. Lets pretend that this new iPad does run only iPadOS. Now which version of the same apps (iPhone, iPad) run on this iPhone/iPad foldable device? Okay lets say only iPad app versions run on this device. Before we go any further down the rabbit hole. Lets pick and use an app like Adobe Lightroom for example, there is lots of other iPad specific apps as well. Now there is two versions of the same app, one for iPhones, and one for iPads. So now if you are using Adobe Lightroom on this unfolded iPad/iPhone device. Everything is working great, but now you fold up this iPhone/iPad device, so now it has an iPhone type layout and screen. Try and remember here that Adobe Lightroom app for iPad is optimized for a larger screen. That iPad app version doesn't support the iPhone display or layout. That is why there is a separate Adobe Lightroom app for the iPhones. So would you now be running the iPhone app version as well when you fold up this iPhone/iPad foldable device? Can you start to see the problem now? It gets worse, especially if a user types something into the iPad type screen layout, but now folds up this device, and now the layout is an iPhone. How does continuity work when you as the user folds and unfolds this iFoldable device? Does that user lose what they typed in, while switching from iPad to iPhone and back again? Android doesn't have any of Apples problems, because they decided that developers and users should only work with one app for both smartphones and tablets. This means it is also easier for app continuity as well. This problem is a lot bigger that you even know. Apple knows this as well. Think about it. If Apple could really fix all the issues today, then they would make a foldable today. Samsung is on their 3rd iteration of foldables. If Apple users have to wait another 2-3 years for their first foldable. That means Samsung, Motorola, and others will be on their 5 - 6 iteration at that time.
If you are using Adobe Lightroom, why would you fold it up and try to use it on a smaller screen? That makes no sense. Very few apps need to work in folded mode. Things like phone, camera, FaceTime and texting. All of which are Apple apps. Things that don't NEED a big screen. Everything else you open it up and use the big screen. Again, its a foldable iPad. The assumption is, you NEED the larger screen. Otherwise why are you buying it? "Samsung is on their 3rd iteration of foldables." And they are still not selling. "If Apple users have to wait another 2-3 years for their first foldable. That means Samsung, Motorola, and others will be on their 5 - 6 iteration at that time." And nothing will be lost. Apple will have learned from all of the mistakes Samsung made. And not lost any money in the process. You seem to be grossly overestimating the value of the "foldable" phone. A ~6 inch phone that opens into a ~8.5 inch tablet is not that great of an idea. Too many people think that 6 inches unfolds into 12 inches. It does not work that way, unless you have a 3 or 4 way fold. At that point you are carrying a brick in your pocket. I would much rather have a real phone and a real tablet. Microsoft is trying this foldable idea too. It is a huge failure. They can't give them away. Different tools for different use cases. Can I interest you in a microwave oven that unfolds into a wood burning pizza oven? A screwdriver that unfolds into a hammer?
From what I've seen on the iMore forums, not many are that interested in a folding iPhone. The ones that seem most interested, are the tech writers. I certainly have no desire for one. They'll likely be priced out of my range anyhow.
If the Z Fold 3 looks promising next week, I'm ditching my iPhone 12 Pro Max for one.
Have you ever used electronic devices with hinges (and flat-cables)? I know why I'm not at all interested in foldables!
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