Apple eyes a foldable iPhone following Vision Pro launch

Last week’s Vision Pro release shed some fascinating light on Apple’s generally top secret development process. A Vanity Fair interview with Tim Cook detailed — in part — what a long and heavy lift it took to get the company’s first headset off the ground. The Apple CEO gave an early iteration of the device the less than flattering nickname, “the monster.”

Rumored foldable versions of the iPhone have also reportedly had their share of setbacks. Issues around durability and the ever-present crease are said to have caused the company to put the foldable iPhone’s development on ice, as the company shifted focused on a folding iPad. A new report from The Information, however, suggests that — after delays — Apple may be back in the foldable iPhone business.

The Vanity Fair piece alluded to the product in the above profile, noting:

[Cook] strolls past restricted rooms where foldable iPhones and MacBooks with retractable keyboards or transparent televisions were dreamed up. Where these devices, almost all of which will never leave this building, are stored in locked Pelican cases inside locked cupboards.

The tense with which the device is described, however, lumps it in with what sounds like one-time projects that failed to materialize. Apple has been known to abandon ambitious projects that don’t meet its exacting standards. With occasional exceptions like AirPower, however, these devices aren’t announced publicly.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

As it did with spatial computing, Apple has apparently been mulling the notion of foldables for quite some time. The root of these efforts could date back to 2018 — a year before Samsung released the Galaxy Fold, the first viable foldable smartphone. Of course, that launch was fraught with its own launch issues. As Samsung re-learned the hard way, lab testing will only get you so far. TechCrunch was among the users who experienced issues with an early version of the phone.

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

Durability issues have largely been addressed by now. That’s not to say that foldables can necessarily stand up to the same degree of wear and tear of other flagship devices (adding moving parts to a device always complicates the math), but the days of them breaking due to things like dirt particulars are mostly over. Ultimately, the question here, however, is what constitutes “good enough” for Apple?

Much like Vision Pro, the original iPhone, AirPods and the Apple Watch, the company needs to believe it’s bringing something fresh to the table before launching a new product line. Maybe that means better drop-testing results. From the sound of things, it could mean the elimination of the ubiquitous foldable crease. Whatever the case, however, it seems consumers won’t be able to get their hands on one of these things before 2026.

Image Credits: Brian Heater

IDC put foldable shipments at just over 21 million for 2023, while projecting that the market will more than double to 48.1 million by 2027. That might sound like a big figure, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.17 billion smartphones that shipped globally in 2023 (itself a 3.2% decline from the previous year).

While foldables have seen continued growth and have injected some excitement back into a staid smartphone market, it’s difficult to know how things will look come 2026 (a sentiment that can obviously be applied far more broadly than just foldables). There have been discussions for several years now about whether Apple can “pull an iPhone” with the foldables space. And while the form factor continues to have its detractors, much speculation has softened as interest in the category has grown.

Apple has reportedly been toying with different versions of a foldable iPhone, though the company seems to prefer the clamshell model — that is to say more Galaxy Flip than Galaxy Fold. Both takes on the category have their merit. The Fold has a much larger main display with a more common aspect ratio, but it’s heavy and large, even when folded. The Flip is a far more portable phone. I prefer the latter, due in part to the fact that these devices generally spend more time folded than not.

The company is reportedly eyeing an eight-inch main display, which would be massive for a clamshell form factor. The Galaxy Z Flip 4’s main screen is 6.7 inches, while the latest Motorola Razr is 6.9. A foldable iPhone would need to be significantly wider to pull this off without a bizarre aspect ratio, and at that point one begins to wonder at what point “clamshell” isn’t the most accurate description of form factor. The Information compares the prototype’s interior to an iPad Mini.

Image Credits: Cory Green/Yahoo

One nice thing about market competition is that different companies have different notions of the ideal footprint for such a device. One of the key things that impressed me with Google’s Pixel Fold is the balance its designers struck between screen and device size. It’s one of the most book-like foldables in terms of aspect ratio. Much of this comes down to personal preference, so each company needs to determine the dimensions they believe will appeal to the largest sliver of audience. Most companies have one or two form factors, tops, and it’s hard to imagine Apple straying from that in the early days of a product.

The likeliest scenario is that Apple releases a single form factor positioned as a second flagship in the iPhone line. Much like the Vision Pro, such a device will probably be cost-prohibitive, hampering adoption — though certainly not to the tune of $3,500.

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

At the very least, Apple’s entry in the space would certainly move the needle on foldables. It will surely impact the 48.1 million by 2027 figure forecasted by IDC. For the time being, the fight is very much Samsung’s to lose, with analysts putting the hardware giant’s share at between 60-70% of the market.

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