It seems that the start of 2020 has been accompanied by a resurgence in the fascination with folding smartphones, once again leading people to ask the inevitable question: When is Apple going to create its first folding iPhone?
While the obvious clicheé answer would seem to be “when it’s ready,” the reality is a whole lot more complicated than that. As we noted a few weeks ago, while Apple often leads the way in many areas—Android makers are still barely catching up to Apple’s security features—Apple also takes a much more cautious approach when it comes to adopting new technologies, and if other smartphone manufacturers have proven anything about foldable smartphones, it’s that this is one area where a healthy dose of caution is more than necessary.
Last year Apple’s legendary co-founder Steve Wozniak lamented that Apple was falling behind in this area, and while there’s no doubt that Apple has already been working on the idea for a long time, the company has clearly always felt that being right is more important than being first.
It was a year ago that Samsung excited a lot of technology enthusiasts with its flagship Galaxy Fold, but it soon became apparent that the vision didn’t live up to the reality of the product, with the company taking a big hit when major problems were discovered, forcing Samsung to delay further sales of the device indefinitely.
Take a moment to imagine what the backlash would have been like if Apple’s first foldable iPhone had suffered these kinds of negative reviews. Somehow we tolerated it from Samsung; nay, perhaps we almost expected it, since another failure from the company that gave us exploding smartphones was hardly a big surprise.
Still, there’s certainly plenty of demand for a folding iPhone, so we know that one is coming, but as this year’s newest slate of folding phones reveals, the technology still has a long way to go before it can be done both properly and affordably.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to creating a folding iPhone is managing people’s expectations. Year after year we see various designers come up with gorgeous concepts of what a folding iPhone would look like, and almost all of them are seriously drool-worthy, like this one from Instagrammer bat.not.bad.
The problem with concepts, however, is that they’re never forced to face the reality of the engineering challenges required to bring them forward. We’ve seen quite literally hundreds of concepts for iPhones and other Apple products over the years, all of which look good in images and videos, but range from being implausible to downright impossible with the technology that’s available today. For example, check out this 2013 take on what the iPhone 5 could have looked like:
Further, many concepts also go the other way, and fail to think far enough outside the box, as this early concept illustration of a folding “iPhone Air” shows:
In fact, before Apple unveiled the original iPhone, many users had a very different idea of what Apple’s first attempt at a mobile phone might actually look like.
Of course, such concepts stir the imagination and whet our appetites for what we’d like to see, and they also arguably help to drive product development forward by forcing designers and engineers to find a way to make new and interesting ideas happen.
However, at the end of the day, even the best designers and engineers are still constrained by the laws of physics and the materials and resources that are available to them, and as overly ambitious attempts at folding smartphones seem to keep demonstrating, it seems likely we’re not quite there yet.
One thing we can be certain of, however, and that’s when Apple finally decides it’s ready to release a folding iPhone, it will not only be done right, but it will quite likely be like nothing we’ve yet imagined.