Earlier this week, reports began circulating that Apple was testing screen samples from Samsung for potential use in future products. This is certainly remarkable, since Apple already sources most of the OLED screens from them, and because Samsung puts so much R&D emphasis on folding screen tech. However, while some may see this as a sign that a collapsible iPhone is inevitable and coming soon, I see it only as business as usual at Apple.
Collapsible is not new to Apple
We have already seen previous patents from Apple that cover collapsible technology, so there is documented evidence that they have researched it, along with everyone else in the technology industry. The basic assumption should always be that if it is a potentially viable product, someone in product design and / or engineering at Apple has already prototyped it. You can safely bet the house that both folding and dual screen models or prototypes of the iPhone have existed and will continue to be made and refined.
However, nothing about what I just said guarantees that Apple will ever fold a collapsible device on the market. We are still in a phase where the price is too high for mass adoption of collapsible, so it is currently difficult to see how large the real market potential is. And no, I̵
The bottom line for Apple is this – if folders do not become commonplace, they will never drop one. Personally, I think that collapsible probably will, at least in one form or another or at some point. However, this point may be years from now, and the best application may end up being a form factor that we have not yet seen yet. Do not expect Apple to jump into this field until more is understood about the real usefulness of such a device.
On the edge
Apple is rarely the first with a new product category. They sometimes debut features first, and they are often the first to take a relatively new mainstream feature first (capacitive screens, biometric security for mobile devices, mobile payments, etc.). However, apart from making the ultraportable laptop with MacBook Air, this is not a direction that Apple often goes in.
While I think a few categories such as smart speakers and TV tuner boxes are the exception, Apple’s biggest strength is that it usually multiplies its new product lines by the moment when the messy and somewhat dangerous bleeding edge becomes leading. Just look at the iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods and others for many examples of this almost perfect release timing. They know when a category is ready to become mainstream. I would argue that Apple was a year or two too early on the smartwatch, but not so early that they beat the buying public with a messy first generation hardware and software. Again, their timing is almost perfect
By all accounts, Samsung has taken big steps with its other big folding device, Galaxy Z Fold 2. Let’s be honest – there was nowhere to go, but up after last year’s embarrassing failure, but it looks like they learned from their wrong and has launched a better than competent folding phone this time. However, we still have no idea how well this thing is going to hold up in the long run yet, and it still costs close to two grand for the privilege of being beta tester (last year was no better than alpha).
This point is still too early for Apple. If they wanted to enter the field right now, I could see them take the more familiar route with a dual-screen device like the Surface Duo, but actually deliver a product that is competent, which Microsoft unfortunately, but not surprisingly, failed to pull off. However, Apple does not tend to invest in short-term solutions, and all devices with dual screens are right now, stopping holes until the folding screen tech is more mature. I do not think Apple will take that path just to switch over later. If they are going to start designing a product for future release, they are likely to take a long-term view and design and construct a real collapsible device.
Just do not hold your breath. We’re heard rumors that Apple’s been working with Mini-LED display technology for use in upcoming Apple watches for a few years now. It is still not clear for best airtime. We’ve heard about Apple’s AR and VR ventures for a couple of years and their car projects even further, but we have no idea when a product will come out of any of these initiatives. Collapsible will be the same way. Apple will not release a product until they feel they can release YOUR product. A common product that has design and polishing, and that a large number of people will own.
This approach to new technology usually works for Apple. As for the HomePod, it’s easy to say in retrospect that it did not. I do not know if collapsible will blind them and develop quickly as the intelligent speaker market did, but the company is going to take its time, anyway.
No matter what we as technical fans want from Apple, it is only unrealistic to expect a collapsible device from them at any time in the next two years. That said, what Samsung and others are doing with folding phones is great. We need companies to push the boundaries of newer technologies, and they must be willing to spill some milk and crack some eggs along the way. Samsung has proven for years that they are ok with it. They are also willing to release niche products that are nothing more than technical fan service. You know, like an early folding phone that costs $ 2000. Apple has not been that company for at least two decades, and they still are not today, so do not get too excited when you hear that they kick the tires on Samsung’s folding screens.