A foldable iPhone. It's something that has to happen at some point given the way iPhone owners offer admiring glances at what the likes of Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, and others are doing in the Android world. But Apple seems to be in no rush. And it might not be alone.
While iPhone owners might want to see what a foldable model could look like and the kinds of features that it could offer, there is one group of people that is perhaps most vital to whether such a thing is hugely popular — or dead on arrival.
That group of people is app developers. And they aren't all convinced about the prospect of a foldable iPhone, or their apps running on one.
The next big thing
With Apple already late to the foldable party, we're left pointing at a fact that has come up countless times before. Apple is rarely the first to market with a new product category, but it usually makes a good stab at it once it finally gets involved.
Apple wasn't the first to make a smartwatch, but the Apple Watch is the best in the world. It wasn't the first to make a smartphone, but the iPhone changed the way people stay connected. It's the same story with the best iPads and tablets, too. There's an argument to be made about smart speakers and the HomePod, sure, but there's enough history to discern a pattern — and we can be fairly confident that a foldable iPhone will learn from the mistakes of others and improve upon them as a result.
But even if we assume that a foldable iPhone would be a technological marvel, complete with an impressive hinge and no sign of a screen crease to be found, there's still a problem. It needs apps that make use of that new foldable form factor.
Foldable phones come in two forms. The clamshell affair, like the flip phones of yesteryear, and the tablet-turned-phone devices that many in the Android world seem to favor. The former takes a standard phone screen and folds it in half to make it more pocketable. The latter goes in another direction by taking a small tablet and folding it to make a phone. A big, often chunky phone. But a phone that fits in your pocket regardless. Try getting an iPad mini into your jeans pocket and you'll immediately see why that is a desirable approach.
It still isn't clear which way Apple would go and both have their benefits.
"The form factor itself is a big question," says Ben McCarthy, developer of the popular Obscura camera app.
"Will we see more devices like the Samsung Flip, taking a smartphone form factor and folding it in half, or will the category be dominated by smartphone-size devices that fold out to become mini-tablets." That, more than anything, will determine how developers build their apps, they say.
And that's the vital point here. Not all foldable phones are created equal, and which route Apple goes down will impact how developers retool their apps to take full advantage of the situation. And it isn't just about capitalizing on the change — it's about fundamentally changing the way apps work.
"The aspect ratio of the smartphone has dictated so much of how they are used and how apps are designed," McCarthy says. "So many apps are designed around the principle of a navigation bar at the top, maybe a tab bar at the bottom, and a vertically scrolling list of content in between." The question? "Does that still make sense if your device is twice the width it was a moment ago?"
Probably not. But McCarthy does have hope that a flip phone-like iPhone could have some benefits, perhaps specifically for apps like theirs. "There are some unique opportunities such a device could offer. Folded at 90 degrees they could work nicely as a desk clock, or as a stand while taking photos." The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip devices already offer a similar photography feature and it looks pretty great.
But if Apple went the Galaxy Z Fold route — a tablet that folds to become a phone — McCarthy isn't sure users will take to it. "When the iPad launched, it was criticized as being “just a big iPhone”. I’m not entirely convinced that what users are clamoring for is an iPhone that can fold out to be “just a smaller iPad,” they note.
That's something that Martin Pilkington, developer of idea-mapping app Coppice, also wonders about. "I think it ultimately depends on how Apple sees a foldable iPhone," he told iMore. "Is it just a 'big iPhone' or is it an iPhone that unfolds into an iPad mini?"
Pilkington thinks Apple will lean on the possible multitasking benefits of such a large screen compared to the cramped displays of traditional iPhones — even the huge iPhone 14 Pro Max.
But things could get interesting if Apple leans into the idea of giving developers an iPad-like screen to work on. "The latter case is far more interesting as, especially if combined with an Apple Pencil, it opens up a whole new power class of apps," Pilkington says. He points out that the biggest limitation developers have right now isn't performance but rather physical screen size — they can only fit so much on one display. "Certain types of apps just don’t make sense on something as small as an iPhone," he says.
No matter what, and regardless of the APIs that Apple might add to iOS to help developers support a foldable screen, things are going to get complicated.
"Every developer will tell you that the more devices you have to support, the more problematic development, testing, and release will become," points out Andriy Kachalo, developer of task manager Task Heat. He also points to something we used to hear leveled at Android phones — fragmentation.
"My biggest concern is fragmentation," he says. "What I mean by that is that not every application can manage to provide the best experience on every form factor." A foldable iPhone could be two form factors in one, adding further complication to the development process. And then there is the iPad and Mac to support independently, too.
A decision to be made
To date, most foldable iPhone concepts have gone the flip phone route with very few assuming that Apple will give users (and developers) more screen real estate when it finally makes the jump into the foldable market.
In fact, Apple is rumored to have designs on making a foldable iPad first, perhaps even a foldable Mac. But whatever approach it takes Apple has some decisions to make and, just as importantly, it needs to find ways to get developers on board and give them the tools they need to make the device into something customers need in their lives.
After all, it was the App Store and its apps that made the iPhone so compelling in the first place.
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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.