Apple screws up sometimes, but it generally tries to make products that will work without repairs for years. And for the last two decades its designers have obsessed over making new devices thinner and sleeker than whatever came before.
So if you’ve been following the troubled launches of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X foldable tablet-phones, that stance alone should explain why Apple probably won’t release a foldable iPhone or iPad anytime soon. And kludgy folding screen technologies are only part of the reason I’m openly scoffing at investment research firm UBS’ (via CNBC) new claims that Apple could have such a device out by 2020, and that some large number of Apple fans would be willing to pay a $600 premium for a foldable iPhone.
Think back for a moment to past iPhone and iPod launches, when Apple executives often pulled devices out of their pockets and took pains to emphasize their ideal sizes — sometimes noting chassis only a millimeter or two thinner than before. Can you picture those same executives okaying an iPhone that’s twice as thick in your pocket just so it can house a questionably usable larger screen?
And the hardware’s only part of the story. Would Apple consider launching a hybrid phone and tablet just after splitting iOS into separate iPhone (iOS) and iPad (iPadOS) versions? If there was going to be a device that transitioned between phone and tablet form factors coming out anytime soon, Apple would not have muddied the software waters in that way.
I don’t question that Apple engineers have been working on foldable devices. Patent applications provide a paper trail, and the company has every reason to explore what folding screens could bring to phones, tablets, and laptops. Just off the top of my head, they could dramatically enhance the virtual keyboard experience across all of these platforms and enable a complete rethinking of how surface area should work for apps, games, and videos. At some point, it will happen; the screens and their protective glass or plastic layers will be so thin, power-efficient, and resilient that folding will make complete sense.
But that’s not the case today and likely won’t be for the next year or two. Folding screen technology is at best half-baked and all but guaranteed to require repairs to the covering material and/or hinges. Questionable reliability aside, early Samsung and Huawei devices are also kludgy in a way that most consumers would not consider appealing — a step back from the simple glass slates people now routinely carry in their pockets.
UBS’s suggestion that people today are, on average, willing to pay a $400-$500 premium for a foldable device over a regular smartphone — and $600 for an Apple version — is all but laughable. In many countries, including some of the world’s largest smartphone markets, Apple was forced to introduce trade-in programs and shave down prices to resuscitate interest in its latest iPhones. There are limits to how much most people will pay for these devices, which is the reason Apple keeps selling $500 phones while it aggressively markets $750 and $1000 models.
Granted, if Apple can find a way to deliver a folding, pocketable device with computer-class functionality, it might well try to charge Mac-style prices for such a product. And sure, Apple customers might be more willing than others to pay some premium for that.
For the time being, however, Apple already has solutions for people who want to spend $1,600 or more on a phone-slash-computer: Buy both an iPhone and iPad, or an iPhone and Mac, if not all three. That’s been the company’s pitch for a decade, and will continue to be so until folding screen technology becomes practical enough to use in truly mass-market devices.
Once that happens, as indicated by supply chain reports of new part availability, you can safely add a year or two of Apple engineering and development lag before an actual product comes to market. In other words, don’t hold your breath for a folding Apple device next year, or even in UBS’ “more likely” 2021 time frame. That’s merely speculation, and from most available evidence, not especially realistic.