Loosely Predicting Apple’s Folding iPhone Strategy

Last week, I participated in a tweet thread that asked people to predict when Apple would do a folding phone. I weighed in that I thought, if they did a folding phone, it could come to market in late 2020. I pointed out that it will take at least until then for the materials to get to the quality and functionality Apple demands for any new technology needed to meet their strict criteria and quality control issues for a phone like that.

While I predicted 2020 as an entry date for an Apple folding phone, looking closer at the materials needed to deliver something that meets Apple’s high standards might not even be ready by 2020. One key component, the flexible screen, is being made by Samsung, BOE, Visionex, and others, but this year they are first generation models. And while second generation models will be better, history tells us that it often takes until generation three or four to get them to the kind of quality and functionality that allows them to be foolproof of sorts, and can be used in hundreds of millions of folding phones in the future.

These new folding phones also need a cover that protects it from breakage and scratching, and at the moment, these covers are plastic. The best solution will be something like a foldable Gorilla Glass that Corning makes. Corning has gone on the record that they are working on a folding glass cover and a first generation version could come out possibly in the near future. A big question is when?

Then there are the issues of perfecting the hinges, creating the actual foldable hardware, etc. Although it appears that Apple has had plans for a foldable in place for some years, given the patents they originally filed in 2011 and was updated in 2016. But to date, I am certain that the materials and mfg process has not advanced to Apple’s standards and most likely, Apple is working with partners to help them create what is needed to make an Apple class foldable iPhone. That is shy 2020 may even be too soon for an Apple folding iPhone, should they decide to do one.

There is one other option on the table too. Apple has filed many patents in the past of products that never saw the light of day. At the moment, this could be an extended research project. Also, Apple does not normally create products on the bleeding edge, and at best, one has to see that the current crop of folding phones are early models and will need a lot of refining to become market movers. Apple’s M.O is to wait for others to bring out a product and even see if there is demand or a market for that product and then create one that is better than competitors and market it hard and end up with the lions share of that market eventually.

Another angle to this that has to be considered is the idea that a folding phone is a fad, not a trend. USA Today conducted some research with Survey Monkey recently and asked US Smartphone users what would excite them about being a new phone. Long battery life, better camera topped the list while folding a flexible screen was at the bottom. The points about battery life and camera being most desired is consistent with our research at Creative Strategies, as well.

In last weeks column, I asked the question of whether there is a market for folding phones. I stated that at this time I am not even convinced that the demand is there. On the other hand, I wrote that flexible screens and the potential for innovation using new materials and designs could power the next 10 years of handheld smartphone computers.

If Apple does enter the foldable smartphone market, it will only be if they are truly convinced there is a market for a product of this nature, and if they and their partners have perfected the types of materials and manufacturing processes that will allow them to make millions and millions of foldable iPhones to meet the needs of a solid worldwide customer base.

One last thought. If Apple did bring a folding iPhone to market, don’t assume it will be similar to the ones by Samsung, Huawei, and Royale. I would not be too surprised if it is closer to Motorola’s idea of a flip phone that folds in half and opens up to a 6.5-inch screen.

It’s hard to argue there is no value proposition for a foldable screen. Consumer behavioral patterns continually demonstrate their affection for big screen devices. Our belief is a sizable chunk of the consumer market will gravitate to the largest screen they can possibly fit in their pocket. From Apple’s user base perspective, one has to assume the idea of an iPhone that you can carry in your pocket or purse that folds out to become an iPad is extremely attractive. Apple also has the developer base, and hundreds of thousands of bigger screen optimized apps thanks to the mature of the iPad developer ecosystem. While we still aren’t sure IF Apple will release a foldable iPhone, they are certainly well positioned in the market if they do release one at some point.

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Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

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