Why Apple is best positioned for a folding phone

While it will likely hold back until display technology improves, Apple could make folding phones compelling with the iPad's app arsenal.
Written by Ross Rubin, Contributor

In my last column, I wrote about why the first disappointing folding phonesshouldn't distract from the potential of phones that can transform into something with a screen size more akin to a tablet. The high price and missteps of the first few folding smartphones have been so glaring that there hasn't been much attention paid to one of their key liabilities: Android.

While the ubiquitous operating system is well-supported in the dominant monoblock smartphone design, Google has long struggled to bring developers along for adjacent rides, even one that is as closely related to the phone as the tablet. And based on the company's stated direction for its own hardware and its high-profile acquisition of Fitbit signaling growing investment in wearables, there isn't much reason to think that things will improve for Android slates. While many phones with expandable screens won't expand out to the size where such tablet optimizations would kick in (and some, like the RAZR, will use folding to reduce their footprint), the most versatile phones would offer this range of screen size options.

That brings us to Apple. While its colossally successful iPhone business faces global competition at scale, few major players are left in the tablet game at all. Sure, a heavily accessorized Surface Pro is a worthy competitor to a similarly equipped iPad Pro when considering those products as laptop replacements or perhaps successors. But the essence of the simple, affordable, casual, intimate slate experience Steve Jobs evoked when he introduced the iPad lives on in today's baseline 10.2-inch baseline model. Alas, even after a decade of developer courting, a new direction for its operating system, and the iPad's elevated status as a pathway to Mac development, a surprising number of iOS apps still haven't gotten with the program. But Apple has, by far, the best app ecosystem hand for exploiting a device that could shift from phone to tablet mode.

Would it go there? There are at least two immediate obstacles. First is the state of folding display technology. Even with shifting design priorities in the post-Ive era, it's hard to imagine Apple's legendary obsession with fit, finish, and quality of experience -- particularly when it comes to displays -- allowing it to accept the limitations of today's folding screens. Second, the nearer-term priority for Apple is a shift to 5G; it would likely do this first in a proven flagship, much as Samsung did. Beyond that, even if Apple were enamored of a folding design and had the means to do it at a level it found acceptable, the evolution of iPadOS signals that we can expect greater divergence between that member of Apple's OS family and its now phone-focused forebear iOS. In a device that could transform from phone to tablet, which would Apple use?

One product Apple could experiment with the technology would be with the iPad mini, a product I've long enjoyed. Its size has always made it most appealing to customers who want the smallest possible iPad footprint, but it has long faced a price/value incongruity in Apple's product line and is still too big for a pocket. What if a future version could fold with the display on the outside, similar to the Huawei Mate X or, even better, extend out with a rolling display given Apple's preference to preserve its devices' thin profile? When extended or unfolded, such a product might not offer the full benefit of a full-sized iPad, but would provide the minimum Apple would need to show off the power of iPad apps in a pocketable form factor without muddying the iPhone line.


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