Apple has been working on folding iPhones for some time

Apple first began filing patents for folding smartphones in 2014

Apple, iOS, iPhone, mobile, Samsung

The appearance of Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X has generated a lot of excitement around folding smartphones, but what if I were to tell you that Apple is quietly working on them too?

How advanced are its plans?

Apple has been developing technologies that could be deployed inside a folding iPhone since at least 2014, when the first patents for such a device appeared in Europe. More Apple patents appeared in 2016 and 2017.

With a nod to the need to innovated display tech, a report that claimed LG was actively working with Apple and four other major tech firms (including Google and Microsoft) on the development of folding smartphones appeared in December 2016. This claimed the first such devices would reach market in 2017, which didn’t happen.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a patent application and a shipping product, but it is interesting how Apple’s patents seem to depict a flip phone with a hinged middle – a sort of iPhone-meets-RAZR-meets-Star Trek Communicator combo.

Some patent descriptions described devices with not visible screen when closed, others leave half the display visible.

I didn’t think about these patents too much when they first appeared, and didn’t buy the  speculation at that time that Apple would ship foldable smartphones in 2017 -- this seemed way too early and the technology challenge way too great for that schedule to be realistic.

After all, these things need to be thin and robust and Apple didn’t even lose the headphone jack until 2016. That’s even accepting the challenge of ensuring performance, battery life and durability can be maintained.

Display tech challenges

Folding smartphones also required innovation in display technology development.

That’s an innovation challenge manufacturers including LG, Samsung and Huawei, are clearly chasing to meet.

A video that purported to show Xiaomi’s leaked three-panel folding smartphone generated huge interest in early 2019 – fully extended to iPad-like size, this device folded into a smartphone-sized device you could pop inside your pocket.

With a range of display manufacturers now capable of developing folding displays, Apple’s R&D teams will now be watching to see how well these things perform in the real world:

  • Are they tough enough to live in your pocket?
  • How easily do they break?
  • How do people tend to make use of them once they have gotten over the initial appeal?

It’s all about the software

How these things are used will be the big sticking point.

Any developer needs to be able to create apps that seamlessly migrate between all the different available sizes in which you can use a folding device.

Apps need to be able to shift between phone mode into tablet mode seamlessly, with no discernible lag and no sense that the move is an adjunct to the core design. Making that process smooth is the difference between gimmick and responsive design.

To achieve that kind of responsiveness means developers must already be creating software that runs in the same or very similar fashion on multiple device families – you can release an app for a smartphone and know it will run in a more or less identical fashion on a tablet.

Apple already ships iOS apps in such a fashion, though the UI may differ slightly between iPhone and iPad mode.

Apple’s Project Marzipan could be seen as more of the same, but this isn’t really going to become a “thing” until new operating systems ship later this year. In the next 12-months we’ll see Mac, iPhone and iPad apps become a more universal binary. This will make apps more responsive and more consistent across different displays.

If Apple is plotting a path to a foldable iPhone, that kind of display agnosticism may prove a necessary step toward flexible apps for flexible displays.

Perhaps Apple is paying more attention to folding smartphones than we thought.

Or perhaps it thinks these devices are gimmicks that lack a real mission.

Let the market decide.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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