Samsung in 2019 and 2020 unveiled its first foldable smartphones, the the Galaxy Fold and the Galaxy Flip Z, both of which feature a foldable design that converts from one shape to another, kicking off a new wave of foldable smartphone releases.
The Galaxy Fold transitions from a 4.6-inch smartphone into a 7.3-inch tablet, while the Galaxy Z Flip is a 6.7-inch smartphone that folds in half to be more portable. Other companies like Motorola and Huawei have also released foldable smartphones with similar designs. The technology is nascent and still has some issues, but foldable smartphones are a trend right now, and a trend that Apple might one day adopt.
Foldable iPhone Rumors
A 2017 rumor kept the folding iPhone concept alive, indicating Apple was partnering up with LG to develop an iPhone with a foldable display. LG has a number of foldable display prototypes that use flexible OLED panels, including one that folds over like a book and a second that rolls up like a newspaper.
Rumors in 2019 suggested that Samsung offered to supply foldable displays to Apple, and Apple supplier Corning is working on a foldable glass solution. Corning is a current Apple supplier, and foldable glass from Corning sounds promising for a future iPhone.
Samsung is rumored to be providing foldable display samples to Apple for a future foldable iPhone as of September 2020. Samsung is reportedly providing Apple with samples for one year, suggesting that Apple is ramping up work on a foldable iPhone. Recent rumors also suggest that LG Display could also be involved in the development of a display panel for a foldable iPhone.
Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who often has reliable insight into Apple's plans, said that development on a foldable iPhone has not yet kicked off, but Apple is said to be working to release an 8-inch foldable iPhone with a flexible OLED display by 2023 if key technology and mass production issues can be worked out. Kuo later revised that prediction to 2024, suggesting Apple still has problems that it needs to iron out. 2023 is the earliest that we can expect to see a foldable iPhone, and display analyst Ross Young has suggested 2024 is more likely.
Kuo believes that the upcoming iPhone will adopt a silver nanowire touch solution for the device's display, which will create a "long-term competitive advantage" for Apple in the foldable device market. This display technology will be needed for future foldable devices that support more than a single fold.
According to Bloomberg, Apple has started "early work" on an iPhone with a foldable display, but the company has not yet committed to releasing a foldable device.
Development has not yet expanded beyond a display and Apple does not have full foldable iPhone prototypes in its labs. Like foldable smartphones from other companies, a foldable iPhone would allow for Apple to create a larger display in a package that is still pocketable.
Apple has discussed several foldable screen sizes, including one that unfolds to a size similar to the 6.7-inch display on the iPhone 12 Pro Max, and others in the 8 inch range. Apple's designs are said to have a "mostly invisible hinge" with electronics located behind the display rather than two panels separated by a visible hinge.
Leaker Jon Prosser has claimed that Apple is working on a foldable iPhone prototype that features two separate display panels that are connected by a hinge rather than a single display design like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, but this is not in line with Bloomberg's description of Apple's display work.
Prosser says the foldable iPhone will feature round, stainless steel edges like the iPhone 11, and while there's no notch, Apple has added a "tiny forehead" that houses Face ID. Though the prototype is two separate panels, the displays together look "fairly continuous and seamless." Apple is likely testing multiple prototype designs and it's not clear if this prototype (or any prototype) will make it to an eventual release.
Foldable iPhone Prototypes
In December 2020, a rumor from the Asian supply chain suggested that two of Apple's foldable iPhone prototypes have passed internal testing for durability, but this is not in line with rumors that work is early and has not progressed to a full device.
Apple was allegedly testing two different foldable iPhone designs at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. One of these is said to be a dual-screen model with two separate displays connected by a hinge, while the other is a foldable iPhone with a clamshell design similar to the Galaxy Z Flip.
The test devices have been described as shells with limited internals and not fully functional iPhones, and it continues to be unclear if this is a product that will make it to launch.
Technology and Market Concerns
According to leaker Dylandkt, Apple is experimenting with multiple foldable iPhone prototypes, but that doesn't necessarily mean a foldable iPhone is coming in the near future.
There may be too many "compromises" with foldable display technology in its current incarnation, as foldable displays continue to be expensive and often unreliable because of the crease. Apple is also concerned about whether foldable smartphones will continue to be popular with consumers or will become obsolete in the coming years.
Ultimately, Apple wants to be sure that a foldable design isn't a "regression from the current form factor of the iPhone," and the company appears to be taking a wait and see approach to foldable iPhone technology.
Foldable iPhone Patents
Apple patents all kinds of things that never become finished products so patents aren't necessarily a reliable way to predict what's in development, but Apple has a few foldable iPhone patents.
Apple's first foldable iPhone patent surfaced in 2016, describing a smartphone that folds in half horizontally using a flexible OLED display and a hinged metal support structure. Both halves of the display remain accessible when the phone is shut, and there are also drawings depicting devices with multiple folds.
A 2019 patent application describes foldable smartphone with a built-in heating element or display heating feature to cut down on failures at the fold in cold temperatures, a problem that has the potential to impact foldable smartphones.
Apple in February 2020 was granted a patent for a foldable device with a hinge mechanism that utilizes movable flaps to help prevent the display from being creased or damaged when folded.
The hinge mechanism is designed to ensure adequate separation between the first and second parts of the display. When the device is unfolded, movable flaps extend to cover the gap, and then retract when the device is folded.
An Apple patent granted in March describes a unique alternative to a foldable iPhone, explaining a system that would allow two or more devices to act as one when brought close to each other through the use of proximity sensors.
The patent envisions two separate devices that automatically detect one another when placed together with a shared display. The wording of the patent seems to suggest that Apple could create a single bendable device comprised of two displays in seamless communication with each other.
A 2020 patent filing suggests Apple is exploring a protective layer for a foldable iPhone that would resist cracking. The iPhone would feature a hardcoat layer that would fill pre-existing micro-cracks to make it harder for a larger crack to appear.
The extra layer would be placed directly on top of the display and would resist punctures and scratches.
When Will Apple Launch a Foldable iPhone?
Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo believes that Apple will introduce the first foldable iPhone in 2024.
What Will Apple's Foldable iPhone Look Like?
With no concrete rumors about a foldable iPhone in the works, there's no word on what form a foldable device might take.
As reference examples, we've seen foldable smartphones that fold vertically both inwards and outwards from Samsung and Huawei. Apple's patents have featured a device that folds horizontally and is not quite as wide as smartphones from Huawei and Samsung's versions, but Apple's patents are conceptual.
We don't know what Apple's foldable smartphone might look like until it's further along in development, but there is allegedly prototype being worked on that features towo displays connected by a hinge.
What's the Competition?
As mentioned above, Samsung has come out with the Galaxy Fold, a $1,980 smartphone that folds in half inwards thanks to a hidden hinge in the middle.
Samsung unveiled a second-generation foldable smartphone, the Galaxy Z Flip, in February 2020. The Galaxy Z Flip is a 6.7-inch smartphone that folds in half to make it more compact and pocketable. It differs from the Galaxy Fold because it starts out smartphone sized and isn't operable while folded, while the Galaxy Fold is a convertible device that's meant to serve as both a smartphone when folded and a tablet when unfolded.
Huawei in February 2019 out with a folding smartphone, the Mate X, which is priced at $2,600. Unlike the Galaxy Fold, the Mate X folds outwards instead of inwards, which gives it a display on both sides when closed. The Mate X measures in at 6.6 inches in smartphone mode and 8 inches when expanded.
Motorola also has a foldable smartphone, the RAZR, that's similar to the Galaxy Z Flip. It's designed to look like the traditional Motorola RAZR flip phone, but with a screen that folds in half to provide a full-screen experience. Other smartphone companies have come out with foldable phones, but prices continue to be high.
Foldable Smartphone Issues
When launching the Galaxy Fold, Samsung was forced to delay the debut after reviewers provided with one of the new devices uncovered major durability issues, with screens breaking after just a few days of use.
Samsung addressed the problems with some design tweaks, making the Galaxy Fold more durable and better able to withstand repeated folding.
Similar problems have been uncovered with the Galaxy Z Flip, and there have been complaints about the display quality (the Galaxy Z Flip uses bendable glass) and at least one user has seen issues with the display cracking in cold temperatures.
Motorola's RAZR has also not fared well, and one reviewer saw the device's display break down the middle after just a week of usage with no known trigger causing the failure.
Given the high price points of foldable iPhones, their delicate nature, and their penchant for failing, Apple may be planning to wait until the technology is more mature before deciding to launch its own foldable iPhone.
Right now, it looks like 2023 is the earliest we're going to see a foldable iPhone, with rumors suggesting 2024 is more likely.
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