We’ve been hearing sporadic rumours for years that Apple has been working on folding screen technology to incorporate into the iPhone, and now it looks like the company is finally forging ahead with its plans, with reports that it actually has at least one folding iPhone prototype design in the early stages of production testing for a possible release as soon as 2022.
According to Chinese publication Economic Daily News (Google Translate), two key Apple suppliers — Foxconn and Nippon — have been asked to produce samples of folding iPhone technology so that Apple can assess how well it stands up to rigorous everyday real-world use.
Specifically, supply chain sources have told Economic Daily News that Apple is looking to ensure that whatever display technology it adopts for its folding iPhone — which at this point could be either OLED or Micro LED, as it’s said to be evaluating both — will be capable of withstanding up to 100,000 folds.
By comparison, as the report notes, most laptop hinges normally undergo between 20,000 to 30,000 folding tests, while some of the higher-end models will be put through 50,000. Understandably, however, a mobile device such as an iPhone would likely be folded open and closed many more times than a laptop, so the requirements are considerably more stringent.
This latest news backs up an earlier September report that revealed that Apple had put in orders for a “large number” of foldable display samples from Samsung to evaluate over a period of one year.
This particular deal was also said to be happening with some urgency, and it’s likely that it’s connected to this recent report of Apple’s assembly partners ramping up trial production, since presumably before Foxconn and Nippon can make folding iPhone prototypes for testing, they need to actually have the screens to put in them.
The Two-Pane Approach
Last spring, leaker Jon Prosser claimed to have seen a folding iPhone prototype that “isn’t really a foldable,” since it used two separate display panels on a hinge assembly — an idea that we saw a patent for earlier this year.
This latest report, however, seemingly contradicts that, since Apple now appears to be testing actual folding displays, and not just hinges for dual-display devices like Microsoft’s Surface Duo. However, it also stands to reason that Apple is likely pursuing multiple approaches, and testing multiple prototypes.
What’s Taking So Long?
Apple clearly wants to avoid the hot mess that was Samsung’s first folding smartphone, the Galaxy Fold by making sure that the first folding iPhone is able to deliver on its promises. It’s an approach that’s very typical of Apple, which is rarely the first to release new technology, preferring instead to let others take the lead with what are effectively consumer-facing prototypes and learn from their mistakes.
In all fairness, Samsung itself seems to have learned from its own mistakes as well, with its follow up Galaxy Z Flip faring far better, but it was no doubly a costly mistake for the smartphone maker.
It’s something we’ve seen time and time again with Apple technology. For example, while Samsung adopted OLED screens in its smartphones back in 2010, it took another seven years before the technology was sufficiently up to Apple’s standards to find its way into the iPhone X — when it could finally offer reasonable brightness levels and the same colour accuracy of LCD screens.
Along the same lines, even though OLED technology allowed for the curved displays that adorned many other smartphones, Apple shied away from these kinds of gimmicks, preferring instead to focus on delivering the best display technology that it possibly could. Despite rumours that Apple had been testing curved displays, the idea proved to be a bit too radical, and when the iPhone X debuted in 2017, there was nary a curve in sight.
So there’s little doubt that Apple is taking a similar approach to creating a folding iPhone by testing and evaluating various designs to make sure that it serves an actual purpose in terms of both aesthetics and user functionality, rather than releasing a folding design simply for the sake of doing something different.
One of the biggest strengths of the iPhone brand has always been its familiarity and ease of use for everyday users. It took ten years before the iPhone X introduced a new UI paradigm by eliminating the home button and relying on gesture controls instead, and it wasn’t until this year’s release of iOS 14 that Apple introduced a new home screen experience.
By comparison, a folding iPhone has the potential to offer up an even more radically different user experience, which is something that Apple is understandably loathing to change without giving it a lot of thought and having a good reason to do so. While we’ve seen lots of reports of what Apple could be doing in the form of numerous patents, these only represent possibilities for different approaches, and it seems certain that whatever direction Apple does ultimately go in, it’s likely not going to be as radical as many of the concepts we’ve seen would suggest, as providing an accessible user experience will always take priority over new technology for its own sake.