Without a foldable iPhone, there is no mass market for foldable smartphones

From Adam Smith’s “Phones that fold and flip can still be the future – if Samsung and Google show why Apple doesn’t have to do it first” posted Wednesday in The Independent:

Foldable phones were going to be the future of smartphones. When Samsung introduced the first Galaxy Fold it was described as a “new dimension for our phone and our life”, something that “doesn’t just define a new category [but] defies category.”…

Yet despite it being three years since the first folding phone, the form-factor has yet to properly get its grip on the market – for both cultural, and technological reasons…

The final, and most powerful, cultural signifier is the one that Android manufactures have the least control over: Apple. Much like the Apple Watch, which has overtaken the entire Swiss watch industry, the aforementioned iPad, or even smaller innovations like its new AirTags tracking tech, foldable phones are unlikely to reach their true potential until Apple makes one.

“Apple is the only vendor on the planet which can help scale a particular technology or component types. Without scale it’s difficult to lower the costs of displays and the foldables could remain $1000 and above until Apple launches the devices”, [Counterpoint Research’s Neil] Shah told The Independent, although there is some disagreement on that view.

My take: What friend-of-the-blog Bart Yee said…

Seeing as all of the folding/flipping/rolling alt form factors combined sell less than a few to 5M units total combined annually so far, it’s an ultra small niche and one where Apple is going to enter ONLY when they have the format done right, the supply chain solidified, and the costs controlled. If at all.  Till then, Apple doesn’t need this market.

11 Comments

  1. Aaron Belich said:
    A foldable brings nothing to the AppleID masses.

    It doesn’t make the device thinner.
    It doesn’t reduce the risk of damaging the screen.
    It reduces the quality of the screen.
    It’s heavier.
    It adds a new feature that has a limited life span, mechanical movements that introduce a new point of failure.

    I could see a foldable iPad / MacBook, two-screen (no keyboard) but not beyond the concept’s we’ve seen from Apple’s, and others, patents. But where would it fit on the Phil Schiller scale of devices. It doesn’t do anything better between Mac, iPad and iPhone. And if it doesn’t do anything better, then it will not exist in Apple’s product line-up.

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    June 30, 2021
    • Kirk DeBernardi said:
      @ Aaron Belich —

      Spot-on analysis — especially about the “Schiller Scale” of doing better.

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      June 30, 2021
  2. David Emery said:
    The idea that others experiment and validate, and then Apple comes out and ‘does it right’ is a lot more insight into Apple’s approach than we usually see from bloggers/writers/analysts.

    I’m not completely against a foldable phone, but I haven’t seen a “killer app” (beyond a book reader 🙂 ) for that extra screen space.

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    June 30, 2021
  3. Duane Bemister said:
    Just let me have the phone app on an iPad mini and sync with the watch.

    5
    June 30, 2021
  4. There was a firm showing a flexible LED material at CES years ago. Phone like Sumerian scrolls, unrolls and snaps flat. Electronics in the edges. Creases from pockets doomed the effort.
    Micro LED projectors may allow new phones to project videos on any surface or offer holographic displays/games.

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    June 30, 2021
  5. David Baraff said:
    If you had AR glasses, then aside from the battery issues, you could project a very nice image with a lot of detail from your watch. Trying to think how your phone could be the (a) battery (b) computational unit but not (c ) the display, by using AR glasses.

    There’s a lot of value (especially for older people where a phone appears a bit small at times) to using the phone as the “computer” but not the display. (Hell, there’s a lot of value in that for everyone.) Interacting with it is the issue. I see AR glasses being able to do this way before we could figure out how to holographically present a display that’s large enough to be better than an iPhone display.

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    June 30, 2021
    • Kirk DeBernardi said:
      @ David Baraff —

      One issue — the Achilles Heal of ANY glasses that this average pundit can’t wrap his head around…

      …it’s on your face.

      Hallowed ground for most humans.

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      June 30, 2021
      • Aaron Belich said:
        Indeed—It’s on your face, and everyone else will see it on your face, thus opening yourself up to all manner of cultural and social stigmas.

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        June 30, 2021
    • John Konopka said:
      This is a good point. A foldable phone may be just a little behind the times and never make it in the mass market. Spinning hard drives is a case in point. Various other technologies tried to replace them, but spinning hard drives were good enough and they could get cheaper quickly. The others could get good enough, fast enough until solid state came along. I recall magnetic bubble memory and then writable optical memory (size of a credit card) all were cool and had some good features, just not good enough fast enough.

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      June 30, 2021
    • Bart Yee said:
      @David Spitballing here:

      If true that MiniLED projectors (or something similar to the IR sensor projectors currently used for FaceID) could be utilized to create 2D or 3D holography in front of the face instead of using a solid material visual display, then the requirement of “glasses” is removed. A headband, thin helmet, or other head-worn or forehead placed projector rather than face-worn device could be the projector sources. IMO, it would be relatively trivial to create wireless communication with an iPhone as data source. Wireless transfer of power could be done but not clear how easily yet. MagSafe thin wire power / data connection could also be possible.

      Holographic display offers almost unlimited options for scaling or zoom but would need optimum conditions for resolution, clarity, or readability at least for text or 3D interaction. The holy grail of use in broad daylight, outdoor setting would be much harder but not impossible.

      Ironically, the pandemic made face masks ubiquitous and partially acceptable socially. It may have done the same for full face shields so a partial “1/3-1/2 height face shield” curved surface thin OLED / MiniLED display in front of glasses or face could be an option, however inelegant it may seem at present.

      Remember, people didn’t wear digital smart watches much until Apple came out with its (ugly per critics) Apple Watch, and now it’s not only dominant, trend setting, long lived, and copied in shape and design, it is accepted and even aspired to in the same (IMO) principle as a Rolex was to some, but now to the masses.

      Could Apple make wearing a visual display of any type, or a folding smartphone / expanding tablet / convertible size display a reality and accepted where other couldn’t? Like I’ve said before:

      Never bet against Apple.

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      June 30, 2021
  6. Gregg Thurman said:
    With shout-outs to Bart Yee and Aaron Belich.

    Apple doesn’t need this market….
    It doesn’t do anything better between Mac, iPad and iPhone.

    1
    June 30, 2021

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