Apple has never really been interested in doing things first, which is unusual for a tech company, especially one worth trillions of dollars. It likes to do things Turn right. It likes to do things when it’s right and done.
The original iPhone was an example of this, just as the company’s cheerleaders are trying to crown it as the world’s first smartphone afterwards. On the contrary, we had a lot of smartphones before that time; they just weren’t very good. Apple found a market ripe for domination—that sweet spot where user interest was high and product quality available was low—then collapsed like a multi-touch cannonball with a phone that executed the concept well.
But the foldable iPhone, which we talk endlessly about rather than something that actually exists in verifiable form, has taken a different path. In theory, Apple has been playing its usual long game, watching, waiting and moving behind the scenes while Samsung, Huawei, opposite and the rest are rolling out their hyped products to heat up the market. But with Samsung unveiling the fourth-generation of its Galaxy Fold phone, the market has been toasty for a while and there’s no sign of a Cupertino headliner.
The Fold, getting old
As you’d expect with a new form factor, the Fold struggled in its early days. The original Fold was affected by: terrible reviews, slowdowns, screen failures, and software bugs, and was, frankly, a mess. But by the time the Galaxy Z Fold 3 rolled around, we saw Samsung settle down and taunt. Instead of solving big problems, it was about refining the design and lowering the price. Of this week Z-fold 4, meanwhile, offers a faster processor, an improved camera, and a slimmer chassis. These are the kind of upgrades you expect from a mature device, not something new and risky.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Admittedly, the Galaxy Z Fold 4 doesn’t look all that different from the original Galaxy Fold. It’s a bit thinner, a bit more practical and a bit cheaper, but Samsung has stuck to its original vision of an overly thin and thick phone that flows into a bigger tablet. Samsung says it has sold about 10 million foldable devices in the past three years, including the cheaper Galaxy Flip, but there’s a feeling the market is still very untested and uncertain.
In some ways, that’s a tough position for Samsung, which now has to come up with compelling reasons for customers to upgrade from previous generations and pursue new customers who might be skeptical. But it also gives the company a bit of a rest. With virtually no competition, Samsung’s innovation stalls with the Fold: there’s still a crease in the center of the screen, there’s still no slot for the S Pen, and there’s still a gap when closed. And at $1,799 it’s still very expensive.
It’s easy to see why Apple would never sell a flagship iPhone with the same flaws. New Apple devices may be rough around the edges — the first iPhone didn’t even have an App Store, and the original Apple Watch relied on an iPhone to run apps — but the hardware is always rock solid. Software can evolve and mature, but hardware is forever.
But still, people seem to like Samsung’s foldable phones. Even if Apple gets it right, launching a foldable iPhone would now be a huge challenge, with rivals having experience making reliable foldables and customers building loyalty with specific devices. With no foldable iPhone in sight for at least 2-3 years, the foldable revolution will almost pass by Apple, if it hasn’t already.
Waiting for the iFold
So what’s Apple’s big plan? Is it seriously going to give up the collapsible market completely? Perhaps. But that’s more of a gamble than it seems.
Because for all the understandable cynicism of the tech media about hype and failure points, foldables could evolved into a generally dominant or even dominant form factor. After all, a foldable screen is basically the ideal design for a phone, one that combines a large workspace with a compact chassis. It just has to do with practical issues in delivering that design – and if you wait long enough, like Apple does, those practical issues start to disappear.
Dominik Tomaszewski / Foundry
Let me put it differently. Imagine the tech landscape of 2030. What is the most important device that every person uses in their daily life? It could be the iPhone 21 Pro Max with the same form factor and better camera, but it’s more likely to be something completely new, like VR/AR headsets. Perhaps something we’ve already seen has evolved to take on a broader role: the Apple Watch, for example, if Apple can find a way around the screen size limitation. But whatever happens, it’s hard to imagine that everyone will still carry smartphones with the same design as the iPhone 13.
At least foldable smartphones have a chance to become the universal device of the future, and I’m concerned that Apple seems to be doing so little to prepare for that future. It’s one thing to be fashionably late, but when it comes to foldable devices, Apple runs the risk of showing up at the party and discovering all the seats are taken.