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What if Apple doesn’t release a foldable?

Foldables are everywhere in the Android world nowadays. Everyone who is anyone — from Samsung to Huawei to Honor to Oppo — is making one. Yet, despite all that, Apple hasn’t made any moves that indicate it’ll be joining the market. Heck, this week, Apple announced one of its most backward-looking products in the iPhone SE. We’ve explored what an iPhone foldable might look like, but perhaps it’s worth considering the possibility that Apple may not release one at all.

Foldables as a concept are quite alluring. In a market where every smartphone feels more or less the same, getting a smartphone that can be a smartphone and a tablet is rather exciting. Giving credit where credit is due, foldables have also come a long way. While the first few foldables proved themselves brittle, modern devices are sturdy, exciting, and selling in more numbers than ever before. It’s almost like Apple might need to jump into this market before all its Android competitors outpace it with their more advanced devices.

There’s time

And yet, looking at the numbers paints a different story. In the premium market where foldables live, it is Apple that reigns supreme. Sure, Samsung’s S-Series phones are exciting, and the Z Fold and Z Flip are better than ever before, but they don’t compare to Apple’s iPhones in terms of sales. This is a product line that includes seven of the top 10 smartphones sold in 2021, with the other three being budget devices. Apple doesn’t need do anything. It’s the foldable makers that need to prove themselves over Apple.

In an interview with Digital Trends, Marta Pinto, senior research manager at IDC, said: “In the current hardware portfolio, Apple counts iPad Mini, that has a slightly larger screen than Samsung Z Fold 3, so there is apparently no reason to embark straightaway in that segment. The foldable category is still in its infancy and requires a lot of ‘nurturing’ [i.e., consumer and developers’ being educated as to why it is a relevant category, as well as building more compelling use cases]. IDC predicts that the foldable category will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 69.9% [over the next few years, 2020-25], so the market will likely continue to exist and grow as the price of the technology comes down with production capacity improving and more brands finding the need to compete also on that segment. Currently, the trend is supply-driven – mainly driven by Samsung – and the players that want to break out this segment will need to put a lot of effort into creating the category from scratch. Additionally, the investment needed is also in sales: Placing a device that falls into a gray zone between categories (smartphone and tablet) will require brands to find the right angle or risk having just a gimmick in their portfolio.”

The rear of the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 on a desk next to a plant.
Microsoft’s Surface Pro series is one popular form factor that Apple has eschewed in favor of the more traditional clamshell. Digital Trends

Building off of Pinto’s point, this would not be the first time Apple has avoided making a middle-of-the-road form factor. In the mid-2010s, convertible laptops and tablets like the Microsoft Surface were seemingly everywhere. Not only did Microsoft have its Surface Pros and Surface RTs, but the likes of Dell, HP, and even Samsung offered convertible-style laptops as well. Now, pretty much only Microsoft makes a Surface-style convertible, while the others have returned to polishing their laptops. Every once in a while, wild laptop designs emerge, but there’s a new understanding that they are just that — wild.

“Foldables and curved displays are not new in the market [remember LG?] and so far none of those experiments took off. … Apple is not known for making uncertain strategic moves, so there are only two options: Either Apple is working on a product that will disrupt the category for good (like iPhone did) or it will wait for the technology and market to mature and bring the best device in the category when the market conditions are ready,” Pinto said. ” … The shift of the company focus to added-value services on top of the devices is clear, and therefore [we will likely] see other brands coming to that market, eager to be a “first” … while Apple will do what it does best: Disrupt the industry elegantly by working on the background secretly.”

Wait-and-see approach

Still, at the same time, there have been reports of Apple testing this foldable form factor, or patenting that one, with some pegging 2025 for a foldable iPhone release. Could this mean that Apple is really and truly gearing up to release the iPhone Fold or iPhone Flip despite all the reasons why it shouldn’t? Avi Greengart of Techsponential told Digital Trends over email: “Apple is fundamentally conservative when it comes to form factor – it introduces products to solve specific user problems, not just because there’s new display technology it could use. Apple is also happy to sell you multiple devices that serve different needs rather than combine them into one transforming super-device that inevitably has compromises in durability or utility. So while Apple is unquestionably testing foldable phones and iPads in its labs today, there is no guarantee that it will actually launch them, particularly if it can provide entirely new computing experiences with augmented reality glasses instead.”

An iPhone SE 2020 sits on a desk, partially obscured by a plant in the foreground.
Apple’s most outdated looking products remain popular. Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Indeed, as we have seen with convertibles and touchscreen laptops, Apple has often stubbornly forged its own path where other companies would take new and (dare we say it) more interesting directions. The end result has been a company with more memorable and dependable products than most of its competitors, and that track record could be what guides internal decisions more than external pressure.

In the end, it is worth remembering that foldables are still a niche market that has yet to prove itself to the everyday person. While they are still novel in some sense, they aren’t the new kid on the block anymore — it’s been three years since the Galaxy Z Fold broke cover. If there’s a case to be made about them being the future of mobile computing, that window is fast closing. If Apple is going to join the rat race, someone inside the company is going to need to make that case. And they may have their work cut out for them.

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Michael Allison
A UK-based tech journalist for Digital Trends, helping keep track and make sense of the fast-paced world of tech with a…
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