Is It Time for Apple to Create a Folding iPhone?

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The tech industry has been abuzz after Samsung debuted its first foldable smartphone earlier this month, leading to the usual speculation and suggestions that Apple should do the same or risk falling behind the curve on innovation.

Even legendary Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak recently told Bloomberg that he’s disappointed with Apple’s leadership in this area, stating that it “worries me because I really want a folding phone.”

Apple has been a leader for quite a long time in a few areas such as touch ID, facial ID, and easy payment with the phone. They’re not the leader in areas like the folding phone, and that worries me because I really want a folding phone.

Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak, in an interview with Bloomberg TV

But with all of the hype surrounding folding smartphones being “the next big thing,” the question needs to be asked not only whether Apple is likely to jump on this bandwagon anytime soon, but whether the company should be in any hurry to do so.

Apple’s Approach to OLED Displays

Of course, the idea of Apple creating a folding iPhone isn’t a new one by any stretch of the imagination. When reports surfaced three years ago that Apple would begin using OLED screens, many expected that the company would take advantage of the flexible new display technology to create curved screens. After all, competitors like Samsung had already eagerly adopted various curved designs, so it seemed logical that Apple would follow suit.

Yet when the iPhone X surfaced, it incorporated Apple’s new OLED “Super Retina Display” without a curve in sight. While early reports had suggested Apple was at least testing a curved display, the company quietly scrapped the idea. Of course, any information that Apple was even thinking of a curved OLED display was based entirely on rumours from industry sources, and while it’s likely true that Apple was toying with the idea, it’s unknown how serious they were about incorporating it into an actual iPhone at that point.

One thing that is clear, however, is that Apple’s Super Retina Display was still groundbreaking when it debuted on the iPhone X later that year. Apple had produced a display with a higher pixel density than ever before seen in an iPhone, along with baking in support for standards like Dolby Vision and HDR10, a million-to-one contrast ratio, and True Tone support, while still managing to also support 3D Touch. In short, Apple produced such a stunning OLED display that people quickly forgot that it wasn’t curved.

Apple Was Already Late to OLED

As great as the Super Retina Display was, Apple was actually really late to the OLED game. Samsung had actually released its first OLED-equipped phone seven years earlier, back in 2010 — at a time when the iPhone 3GS still roamed the earth. For years, tech pundits cried out for an OLED iPhone, while Apple continued to remain completely mum on the subject, churning out one LCD model after another.

When Apple finally debuted its first OLED screen on the iPhone X, Apple’s Phil Schiller provided some insight into what had taken so long, basically explaining that Apple had to wait until OLED technology was up to the standards that would make it worthy of inclusion in an iPhone. Schiller pointed to issues such as OLEDs lower brightness levels, which often made OLED-based phones difficult to read outdoors — and almost impossible in direct sunlight — as well as poor colour reproduction. Apple had long put an emphasis on colour accuracy in its screens, and had in fact pioneered “True Tone” technology in its iPad Pros the prior year, which actually went so far as to detect ambient light in order to adjust the screen to an even greater degree of colour accuracy. The company wasn’t about to compromise these points just to move to an OLED display.

So What About a Folding iPhone?

Apple clearly sets a high standard for the display technology that it incorporates into the iPhone. OLED may have been good enough for Samsung and other handset makers back in 2010, but it took seven years for the technology to evolve to the point where it met Apple’s considerably higher standards.

Likewise, while OLED allows for curving and folding screens, Apple has chosen to focus its engineering efforts on what it believes are the features that the majority of users are likely to care about. It’s not that Apple has ruled out the idea of a folding iPhone — it was rumoured to be working with LG on the idea as far back as 2017, and has even patented a possible hinge design for such a device — but it seems likely that based on Apple’s typical approach to the iPhone and OLED display technology in general, the company is going to take its usual measured way of addressing these newer technologies.

On the other hand, Samsung has traditionally been the diametric opposite of Apple when it comes to adopting new technologies, producing bleeding-edge gadgets and features that sound good on paper, but don’t always deliver on what they promise. Samsung’s announcement of its Galaxy Fold may have left tech pundits in awe, but once the initial hype settled, most agree that Samsung’s foldable device is actually a hot mess — an idea that looks cool but it definitely not anywhere near ready for prime time.

Meanwhile, nobody’s even quite sure what form a folding iPhone should take. As the company that brought us behemoths like the Galaxy Note, Samsung has not surprisingly gone for the “phablet” approach — a larger tablet that folds down into a smartphone. However, on the other side of the coin, Motorola — the company famous for its extremely compact StarTac and RAZR phones of the pre-smartphone era — recently told Engadget that it has plans to go in the other direction. According to Motorola’s VP of Global Product, Dan Dery, the company has been working on foldable phones for a long time, but is clearly looking to recreate something in the style of its classic RAZR — a standard-sized smartphone that folds down into something even more compact.

Folding smartphones are still in their nascent stages, and while it’s almost certain that Apple has a prototype somewhere deep within its skunkworks, at this point it still makes a lot of sense to wait for the market to mature and at least get some sense of what a folding smartphone should actually be before forging ahead. The popularity of Apple’s technology has always stemmed from the fact that it leads the industry from behind — it’s very rarely the first company to adopt something new, but more often than not, it’s the best. This should leave us excited for what a foldable iPhone will eventually look like, while being patient enough to wait for Apple to do it right.

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