A year ago, I wrote about how foldable devices were the future. Or at least a big part of it. (Until, like Star Trek going The Next Generation foretold, wearables make them obsolete.)
TL;DR, I talked about how the history of human technology was the history of foldables. From books to wallets, we humans just love to fold everything, including our clothes and our food. Oof, yeah, now I want a taco.
I even mocked up folding iPhone concepts in Photoshop that look a lot like what the Modern Moto Razr and just-announced Samsung Flip turned out to look like. Now, because those phones are coming out, people are wondering out loud where Apple’s foldable phone is. After all, the Flip shows the hardware is ready, right? So, it’s Apple’s software that must be the problem then?
Wait, wait, hold up. Or just fold up.
Now, just to be clear. Foldables still aren’t a thing yet. No one is buying them because they’re objectively the best devices, with the best cameras, battery life, displays, durability, and oh yeah, value.
We few nerds are buying them because they’re subjectively the most novel devices right now. Way more interesting than the so damn always boring slab phones we’ve all been subjected to for the last decade and a half.
But, they’re also not really usable as anyone’s only device right now either. They’re mostly a second, third, even fourth or more device — this year! — for the small, affluent, industry-insider market Samsung and a few other companies have realized they can target, using foldables, as just the fastest way to separate us from our money.
Most people, the vast majority of people, are still buying far more reasonably priced, robustly specced slab phones. And should be, at least until foldables aren’t just subjectively novel for people who routinely go through a dozen phones a year, but truly become objectively better for people who need the best phone possible for several years.
And those are two very, very different markets.
Ok, so, there are currently two main types of foldables on the market. First are essentially foldable tablets — tablets that fold down into phones.
The Samsung Galaxy Fold is the best-known example, because it got a big, flashy announcement, then shipped, then broke, then halted, then refactored, then shipped again. And that all got the Fold a crapton of attention.
It folds like a book, with a small screen outside and a big screen inside.
Software-wise, I think a Galaxy Fold book-type Apple foldable would actually be one of the simplest to implement.
On the outside, you’d present the 4-inch iPhone interface, the one found on the iPhone SE. I mean, if it really has be kept super teeny tiny. Otherwise the 4.7-inch iPhone 8 or iPhone 9 or whatever the next entry-level iPhone is called — that interface would be perfect.
Open it up, and you’d get the 7.9-inch iPad interface.
Since Apple already supports size classes, from compact iPhone style to regular iPad style, and universal binaries that contain both the iPhone and iPad interfaces, all the building blocks are already there.
It’s how multi-window apps work on the iPad already. Regular class when full or half screen, compact class when a third of a screen.
If developers already support it for iPadOS, it might even “just work” on a foldable pad screen, including multi-window when opened up as a tablet.
Huawei’s Mate X is another well-known foldable tablet. After a flashy debut at the beginning of 2019, as of the end of 2019, it’s only shipped in China and there’s still no word on when the rest of the world will get it.
Unlike the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X isn’t an innie — it’s an outie. As in screen side outie. Not like a book but like a… um… a… actually, I can’t think of anything else like that.
But, whatever, a Mate X-style folding tablet would probably be even easier to implement. iPad Air interface when open, iPad mini interface when closed.
Make sure it keeps Apple Pencil support and we’re flying.
The second type of foldables we’re currently seeing are essentially foldable phones — phones that fold down into… I don’t know, pagers?
The Moto Razr in all its nostalgic retro-future glory was announced late last year and just started shipping. The Galaxy Flip — technically the Galaxy Z Flip, reportedly named after it’s Gen-Z target market — was just announced this week and will ship shortly. Both of them are book-style innies-type foldables with the main screens on the inside.
The Razr has a square display on the front when closed. That would technically be a compact/compact size class, vertically akin to an iPhone in landscape and horizontally to an iPhone in portrait. This might be the biggest challenge for Apple to implement, not in theory, but in practice, as landscape interface on the iPhone has always felt cramped.
And no secret ROKR mode. Please.
The Flip has a tiny pill-shaped display on the front. If Apple went that way, iOS could just push banner-style notifications to that, so I don’t think it’d be much of a hurdle either.
Open them up, and you just get the current iPhone interface. No framework fuss, no developer muss.
Expect for the finna flex…. I mean flip flex mode where you get different apps on the top and bottom of the crease. Those would both have to be the same compact/compact size class as the front display. It might already work, again in theory, but it would benefit enormously from some special attention and consideration to really optimize it for persistent use.
So, if the software isn’t really a roadblock or even much of a stumbling block, what about the hardware?
Some might say Samsung is so far ahead in hardware already it would take Apple a long time to catch up.
And… maybe. But the first time I ever heard about a modern foldable phone was way back in 2010, like iPhone 4 era, and it was about Apple already prototyping them. So, at best, it’s totally possible Apple has a decade of R&D on this stuff already. And, remember, unlike a lot of other companies, most of the time Apple keeps its early failures to itself.
If not, at worst, it’s important to remember that Samsung isn’t mostly a phone company. It’s mostly not a phone company at all. It’s a massive conglomerate with a huge component business. And it’s been supplying those components to Apple for years. Most recently and famously, fabricating Apple’s OLED screen designs for the iPhone X-series.
If Samsung has the capacity, and anyone, including Apple has the money — and Apple has the money — there’s a very good chance there’s nothing Samsung’s doing in foldables that isn’t for sale.
Now, some might argue the use cases aren’t there. Like I said at the beginning, though, the history of human technology is the history of foldables.
Hell, even laptops fold. Why? Because it makes them ever so much more convenient to carry around than desktops.
While some of us can fit mini tablets into the back pockets of our not-so skinny, not-all hipster jeans, many people just can’t. If they need to bring a tablet, they need to bring a backpack or messenger bag to carry it with. A folding tablet, though, might still fit in pocket or handbag.
And, as the currently ubiquitous slab phones continue to get bigger and bigger — trying real hard not to glare in your direction, Galaxy S20 Ultra — they simply get too big for some people to easily carry around either.
For those people, just like a wallet or classic flip phone, sacrificing some depth to save on some length, for these people, just makes the kind of sense that does.
So, if the software isn’t a huge problem, and the hardware is available and has some practical applications, why isn’t Apple announcing a foldable tablet or phone right now, now, now?
Because the current hardware implementations just aren’t there yet. They still have too many compromises to be mainstream devices, and when it comes to mobile, Apple only makes mainstream devices.
Moving from the plastic screens of the Galaxy Fold and Moto Razr to the glass screen of the Galaxy Flip looks to be a huge leap forward in terms of durability, but we’ll have to see how well it holds up when the Flip actually ships and thousands of people get their hands on it in the real world.
Even then, it still has a crease, which is probably one of the real deal-breakers for Apple right now. The crease is like a notch you not only can never unsee but can never not feel. Also, notches vs. foreheads vs. hole-punches are all subjective. You could argue one is better than the others or none are worse than the others. Not so, creases. They’re never better than no creases.
The other deal-break is probably price. Foldables are currently in the early adoption phase, nowhere near mainstream acceptance. The technology required to make them is expensive and that makes the retail price even more expensive.
Apple’s biggest advantage in the consumer market is packaging technology in way that’s highly appealing to the mainstream, mostly at the exact right time to ride or push it into the mainstream. The iPad wasn’t just simpler and tons more fun than the Tablet PCs of the time, it was $499 at launch, not $999.
$1499 for an iPhone flip or $1999 for an iPad fold just ain’t it.
All that said, I think Apple could eventually make super interesting foldables.
The company would likely pick a single target, at least at first, and since it makes everything from the silicon to the hardware to the software to the interface, the experience could be extremely well-tailored to that target. Something that’s more challenging when you’re Android with Google or without, and having to work for Samsung and Huawei and Motorola and, sure, why not, Royale Flex Pai.
Given what everyone from Apple Display to the Taptic Engine teams can do, foldable iPhones, foldable iPads, hell, foldable MacBooks where both sides are screens and different haptic keyboards and control surfaces can manifest opportunistically, when and as needed.
But, none of that is going to happen until the technology becomes more mature. Until it moves from novelty to very nearly mainstream.
Just like there were years of Palm and BlackBerry before the iPhone and a decade of Tablet PC before the iPad and Pebble before the Apple Watch, there are going to be a bunch of Folds and Flips and, I dunno, flings? before Apple enters the foldable ring.
Or, you know, wearables make them obsolete. And then projectables do the same thing to wearables.