Apple is eyeing a foldable iPhone after launching the Vision Pro

Apple is eyeing a foldable iPhone after launching the Vision Pro

Image credits: Gabe Jones/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Last week’s release of the Vision Pro shed some fascinating light on Apple’s top-secret development process. Vanity Fair’s interview with Tim Cook detailed – in part – the long and heavy effort it took to get the company’s first headphone off the ground. Apple’s CEO gave an early version of the device a less flattering nickname, “The Beast.”

The foldable versions of the iPhone are also said to have had their share of setbacks. Issues with durability and permanent creasing are said to have caused the company to suspend development of the foldable iPhone, as the company shifted to focus on the foldable iPad. However, a new report from The Information suggests that – after a delay – Apple may be returning to the foldable iPhone business.

The Vanity Fair article referenced the product in the profile above, noting the following:

Cook walks through forbidden rooms where foldable iPhones and MacBooks with retractable keyboards or transparent TVs have been created. These devices, almost all of which will never leave this building, are stored in Pelican boxes locked inside locked cabinets.

However, the tension with which the device is described brings it together with what seem like one-off projects that failed to materialize. Apple has been known to abandon ambitious projects that don’t meet its strict standards. With occasional exceptions like the AirPower, these devices are not publicly announced.

Image credits: Brian Heater

As it did with spatial computing, Apple appears to have been mulling the idea of ​​foldable devices for some time. The origins of these efforts can be traced back to 2018, a year before Samsung launched the Galaxy Fold, its first foldable smartphone. Naturally, this launch was fraught with its own launch issues. Because Samsung relearned the hard way, lab testing will only get you so far. TechCrunch was among the users who encountered issues with the early version of the phone.

This category has matured quite a bit in 4.5 years. Foldable devices are hardly ubiquitous, but Samsung’s Fold and Flip devices have proven that demand is there, culminating in the company’s decision to discontinue the Galaxy Note and promote the new devices to flagship status. There are also a number of other companies in the game now, including Huawei, Oppo/OnePlus, Motorola (Lenovo) and Google. For my money, the Google and OnePlus models are the best on the market currently.

Durability issues have been largely addressed so far. This doesn’t mean that foldable devices can necessarily withstand the same degree of wear and tear as other flagship devices (adding moving parts to a device always complicates the calculations), but the days of them breaking down due to things like dirty details are mostly over. But ultimately the question here is what constitutes “good enough” for Apple?

Just like the Vision Pro, the original iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch, a company needs to believe it’s bringing something new to the table before launching a new product line. Maybe this means better drop test results. From the sound of things, that might mean getting rid of the ubiquitous folding crease. However, whatever the case may be, it looks like consumers won’t be able to get their hands on one of these things before 2026.

Image credits: Brian Heater

IDC estimated foldable shipments at just over 21 million for 2023, while it expects the market to double to 48.1 million by 2027. That may seem like a big number, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.17 billion smartphones shipped globally in 2023 (a decrease of 3.2% from the previous year).

While foldable devices have seen continued growth and have brought some excitement back to the smartphone market, it’s hard to know what things will look like by 2026 (a sentiment that applies much more broadly than just foldable devices). There have been discussions for several years about whether Apple could “pull the iPhone out” with a foldable space. While there are still critics of the form factor, much of the speculation has subsided as interest in the category has grown.

Apple is said to be working on different versions of the foldable iPhone, although the company seems to favor the clamshell model – meaning more Galaxy Flip than Galaxy Fold. Both takes on this category have their advantages. The Fold has a much larger main display with a more familiar aspect ratio, but it’s heavy and large, even when folded. The Flip is much more mobile. I prefer the latter option, partly due to the fact that these devices generally spend more time folded than not.

The company is said to be eyeing an 8-inch main display, which would be huge for the clamshell form factor. The Galaxy Z Flip 4’s main display is 6.7 inches, while the newer Motorola Razr’s display is 6.9 inches. A foldable iPhone would need to be much wider to be able to achieve this without a weird aspect ratio, and it’s at this point that one begins to wonder at what point “clamshell” isn’t the most accurate description of the form factor. The information compares the interior of the prototype to the iPad Mini.

Image credits: Corey Green/Yahoo

One of the nice things about market competition is that different companies have different notions about the ideal footprint for such a device. One of the main things that struck me about Google’s Pixel Fold is the balance its designers struck between screen size and device size. It is one of the widest folding books in terms of aspect ratio. A lot of this comes down to personal preference, so each company needs to decide which dimensions they think will appeal to the largest audience. Most companies have one or two form factors, and it’s hard to imagine Apple moving away from that in the early days of the product.

The most likely scenario is that Apple releases a single form factor that is positioned as the second flagship in the iPhone line. As with the Vision Pro, such a device would likely be expensive, hampering its adoption — though it certainly won’t reach $3,500.

Another thing worth noting is that Apple’s mere presence legitimizes a category for many. I’m not saying this is always rational thinking, but the company has a track record of revolutionizing existing categories. Again, look at the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and AirPods. The jury is still very much out on the Vision Pro, leaving some to wonder if this particular brand of magic is starting to fade.

At the very least, Apple’s entry into the space is sure to move the needle on foldable devices. It will almost certainly impact the 48.1 million by 2027 number predicted by IDC. For now, it’s largely a battle Samsung will lose, with analysts estimating the hardware giant’s share of the market at between 60 and 70%.

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