Rene Ritchie: Will Apple iPhone fold — or hinge?

Fold iPhone concept
Fold iPhone concept (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

There've been rumors about Apple prototyping folding iPhones for almost a decade. I first heard about them around the time of the iPhone 4 or 4s. Honestly, that whole half-decade is a bit of a blur.

Anyway, I heard about Apple prototyping both bigger iPhones and folding iPhones at the same time and, in hindsight, I'm now left to wonder out loud if it was for similar reasons — the need to grow the displays but the desire not to fully blow out the size of the cases.

Apple, of course, chose to go with the taller but still one-hand-ease-of-use-ier iPhone 5 next before giving in and going fully big and bigger with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

And, since then, Apple has gone full screen, but there's still been nary a fold — or a hinge — in sight.

A thousand 'no'

It's critically important to remember two things when you hear about future Apple predictions.

First, from financial analysts; like Apple buying Netflix or Disney or Tesla or whatever it was this week — Duck Duck Go — they just want to move the market for their clients, which are not us.

Second, from reporters; that Apple is big enough and has enough resources to prototype literally anything any blogger, podcaster, or YouTuber could think up, years before they're thought up, like a thousand times over.

When Apple says they say no a thousand times for every yes, that means they're coming up with a 1000 things you never see for every 1 thing you do.

Apple prototyped televisions for years but ultimately decided it just wasn't the right business for them. Apple's been prototyping automation and augmented reality for years, and has productized ARKit, CoreML, and LiDAR, but hasn't shipped any robots or glasses, at least not yet.

AirPods, those shipped.

It would almost be more newsworthy, more controversial, more concerning if Apple wasn't exploring and prototyping any major technology trend, especially one so potential impactful to their core business as foldable phones.

That's just the what, though. And as you know, I always care way more about the how and the why.

A few potential 'yes'

The story of human technology is, in part, the story of foldables. We fold books. We fold wallets. We fold sandwiches. We do it to reduce length or width at the expense of adding depth, and to protect the inside by sacrificing the outside.

Also: Folding is fun. It's cool. It's satisfying. Like the sound of a snap or crunch of a potato chip.

We're seeing that now with the early-adopter foldables already on the market.

LG has a phone that goes into the case containing a second screen and battery. Apple could conceivably do something like that, add a smart connector and an accessory that turns the standard iPhone into a dual-screen iPhone the way the Magic Keyboard turns the iPad Pro into a traditional computer.

I don't think Apple will. Not that they don't know how to drive demand and make money at the accessory game, they most assuredly do, just that I don't think a snap-in case is an elegant enough solution for Apple in this particular… case.

Folding iPhone concept mock up

Folding iPhone concept mock up (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Motorola and Samsung both have riffs on the classic flip phone. The clamshell. Motorola has a clever hinge mechanic and actual, usably-sized screen on the outside of theirs, and Samsung has plastified glassy… stuff on the inside of theirs, but they remain similar in concept — they let you carry around a fairly huge phone without having to have fairy huge-sized pockets.

Apple could also conceivably do something like that. A more easily pocketable Apple… pocket watch, so to speak, that flips open into a full-sized iPhone. Something that's less Dick Tracey and more Kirk to Enterprise.

I'm guessing Apple would want to get a little further down the foldable glass path first, minimizing creases and maximizing protection from dust and liquid ingress, but I'm also guessing this specific type of foldable is probably a little further down on Apple's to-eventually-do list.

Samsung and Huawei… kinda… also have biggish phones that unfold into smallish tablets. Huawei's is an outie not an innie, which saves on screen and camera duplication but also bails entirely on screen protection. It's like having a book with the pages on the outside.

Samsung is an innie. Small screen on the front cover, double-width screen on the inside spread. And, for all of the fun vibes the flips have been getting, it's the Fold that's been gobbling up the productivity hype.

Apple could certainly do something like this. An iPhone Max when closed, an iPad Nano when open.

They've got the software model and singular integration to likely avoid some of the growing pains Samsung and Google have been going through, and an actual, never mind huge, catalog of tablet apps to run on it.

And maybe, just maybe, and I don't want to jinx it, it'd even be enough to get Instagram to make damn iPad app. Finally. For once. Seriously.

But I have the same caveats here. The core components for a true foldable are still at around iPhone 6 level, which is perfectly fine for early adopters for whom the current uniqueness of the experience, and preponderance of other phones at their immediate disposal, makes it a zero risk proposition.

For mainstream adoption, though, I think all those same glass and ingress technologies are going to have to mature just a little bit more before Apple's willing to graduate them out of the lab and into a shipping product.

Fold iPhone concept

Fold iPhone concept (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

That brings us to the hingeable. The foldable where the two sides fold but the screen does not. Microsoft pre-announced a very wide version of just that back last year already. Running Android. Which is like Apple announcing phone hardware made by Motorola. Again. Don't at me. Or do. Whatever.

It's sort of a middle ground that tries to be if not the best of both worlds than at least avoid the worst of both. You don't get that singular screen experience when open but you also don't get that crease down the middle. And you get to use the latest and greatest chemically hardened glass and seal everything up for top level water resistance as well.

It offers similar utility if not the same experience, and can be every bit as fun to open and close, if not as elegant to look at when opened.

And it's also pretty much the same as what Apple was rumored to be working on way back in 2010 or 2011 as well.

If or when?

There are many a slip betwixt a prototype and a ship, and as much as Apple's been willing to go-to-market earlier than usual lately with products like the Watch and, just maybe, the glasses, they're also still willing to wait until they feel a technology or set of technologies are mature enough for the mainstream like… wait, no spoilers.

Personally, I've been saying for a long, long time that I think foldables are part of the future, at least until projectables become far closer to reality.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.