While Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi and Motorola have already introduced foldable smartphones, Apple is allegedly still researching the topic. The question arises: Do we even need a foldable iPhone?
Only last week I had the opportunity to hold a foldable smartphone in my hands once again. To be more precise, I could even try two models: Samsung's current foldable smartphones, the Galaxy Z Fold3 and Galaxy Z Flip3. These are undoubtedly among the top devices, however, they have once again shown me why I am not convinced of the benefit of a foldable phone.
The new Galaxy Z Fold3 is supposed to be a smartphone that is slightly narrower than the standard non-foldable smartphone, but it can be opened into a larger device. The Galaxy Z Flip3, on the other hand, is a device that only becomes a normal-sized smartphone when unfolded, when folded, it takes up a little less space in your pocket. In addition, the flip folding mechanism is reminiscent of the old folding mobile phones from 20 years ago. A slightly nostalgic feeling creeps up everyone who holds the Flip3 in their own hands.
While Galaxy fans are enthusiastic about the fact that Samsung has managed to "hide" the front camera under the display with the Z Fold3, and also make the foldable screen compatible with the S-Pen known from the Galaxy Note series, my feelings are somewhat divided. I can understand why Apple has not yet launched a foldable iPhone.
Potential for improvement
Apple fans like to claim that iPhones offer higher quality components and workmanship than competing products. Perhaps this is just a psychological trick: "If I pay more, it must be higher quality."
However, Samsung is not a manufacturer famous for making cheap smartphones. Especially with the S21 series, where Samsung has created a very elegant and high-quality design in my opinion. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to foldable smartphones.
For one the display cannot be as good as what we have become used to. If it is to be foldable, compromises must be made - and if you want to be able to open and close the device up to 200,000 times without any problems there has to be a fold. This means it feels more like plastic than glass. In addition, the devices magically attract fingerprints. Well, that's a problem that normal smartphones also have, but I had the impression that the Fold3 and Flip3 were much more vulnerable in this regard.
I had these sinfully expensive devices in my hands and just thought to myself: "Apple wouldn't bring such a thing to the market". Anyone who knows Apple knows how important design is to the company. And of the currently available folding smartphones, there isn’t one that I could imagine would even approximately meet Apple quality standard.
The question is: Does Apple take the time to find solutions to these problems or does Apple think differently? Because foldable devices definitely have potential.
Foldable smartphones: The way out of the smartphone crisis?
As I argued in this article (Why the end of the smartphone is imminent) the current hype about smartphones could be over in the next 15 years. However, it cannot be denied that smartphone manufacturers have now reached a point where there is not really much more to do. The processor chips can get a little faster from year to year, the batteries more durable and the cameras a little bit better. Manufacturers such as Xiaomi or OnePlus - and also Samsung - show that modern features, such as 120Hz displays, 5G and good cameras do not have to be expensive.
Foldable smartphones, on the other hand, are the new Pro models. The Galaxy Z Fold 3 has become a little cheaper than its predecessor model, but it still starts at £1,599/$1,899, which is considerably more expensive than the most expensive iPhone 12 Pro Max with 512GB memory (which costs £1,399/$1,399).
While it is not surprising that foldable smartphones fascinate people, the target group for such devices is still quite small at the moment (they are just too expansive for the average buyer). However, with a price adapted to the general public, foldable smartphones have a real chance to help the smartphone market out of the crisis.
Apple's tactics: Wait and watch
It would not be the first time in history that Apple waits, observes the competition and then - a few years later - turns the market upside down with a perfected product. If you trust the rumours, the iPhone Fold (an unofficial name for perhaps the first foldable iPhone) is in the development phase.
Something is definitely underway at Apple's research and development department, that's for sure. The only question is: Does Apple mean to make a foldable smartphone - a device that combines the iPad and the iPhone - or has it something completely different in mind?
Unlike the competition, Apple has been extremely successful at selling tablets. Samsung also manufactures tablets, but the sales figures are far from as good as Apple's iPad models. The fact that Samsung has therefore decided to combine smartphone with tablet is logical. But if Apple was to merge two successful products into one what would it gain?
In fact, rather than gaining anything, wouldn’t Apple shoot itself to its knee if it introduced a foldable iPhone that takes on the functionality of an iPad when unfolded?
The only real benefit is that Apple could raise the price significantly if the iPhone Fold becomes two devices in one, without too much compromise. Customers then don’t have to buy two devices, namely iPhone and iPad, but only one. Of course Apple still loses out here, with fewer iPad sales.
Why nobody needs an iPhone Fold
Apple must first be able to solve the form factor problem that Samsung currently has. Michael Simon on Macworld US describes the problem quite aptly:
"The proportions of the Galaxy Z Fold3 aren’t ideal for working on the phone or the tablet because Samsung designed it to be both things at once and got the the lesser of both worlds. That’s why the Z Flip3 works so much better—it knows what it’s supposed to be and doesn’t try to be anything more. It’s a smartphone that flips open. The Z Fold3 doesn’t know if it wants to be a smartphone or a tablet."
But what if Apple is not working on a foldable iPhone? What if Apple knows that no one really needs a foldable iPhone, because you always have to make a compromise: Too big a smartphone or a tablet that is too small.
A foldable tablet, on the other hand, which becomes a MacBook when unfolded, could perhaps be something Apple is thinking about. Thus, Apple could continue to sell iPhones and additionally an expensive foldable iPad (let's call it iPad Fold), which is priced in the middle of an iPad Pro and a MacBook. I would rather spend £1,500/$1,500 on a good foldable iPad/MacBook, which has the right form factor and does not have to compromise from both worlds, instead of £1,500/$1,500 euros on an iPhone Fold, which probably has the same problems as the Galaxy Z Fold 3 currently.
Of course, my theory regarding a foldable iPad/MacBook is not completely watertight. As someone who has a lot to do with text work full-time, I would hate to type on a digital keyboard without physical resistance. The good news is that iPadOS is becoming more and more like macOS, although Apple has confirmed that a merger of these two systems will not take place. But nevertheless: This idea is exciting. What Apple is actually planning and whether Apple has perhaps found a solution to all these problems, we will probably not know until the next few years.
Different Think is a weekly column in which Macworld writers expose their less-mainstream opinions to public scrutiny. We've defended the notch, argued that Microsoft is out-designing Apple, and told Apple to stop being so successful and you can read about some of the features we wish Apple would bring back to the iPhone.
This article originally appeared on Macwelt. Translation by Karen Haslam.