A Folding iPhone Is Flatly Unattractive

A recent report about Apple making a foldable phone reminded me: I don’t care for such a thing. That might sound like a surprise coming from a tech geek, but fancy new gadget tech isn’t necessarily good. The report talks about a potential folding iPhone from Apple and mentions the possibility of a folding notebook. With a phone being small and a notebook being big, there are different ways to view folding screen technology.

First, a folding notebook aims to take a large-display device and make it more portable. That’s good in an age of mobile computing, I guess. It makes sense to decrease/minimize the size of a mobile device and thus increase/maximize its portability. I might be interested in such a thing because it could mean having a 20” laptop (that’d be huge!) in the size of a 10” tablet when moving it. But the devil is in the details… It mostly sounds costly and shatter-prone.

Second, a folding phone can be viewed in two ways. Either the aim is to make a small phone fold into something smaller (like the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip), or the aim is to make a pocketable phone unfold out to something bigger (such as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold). The first of these seems redundant to me. If a phone is already pocketable, then using expensive and intricate mechanics to make it even smaller is wasteful. The latter, though, makes a bit more sense and is a device I might be interested in if Apple nailed the design.

The idea of a pocketable phone that unfolds out to something bigger is better understood as a mini-tablet device that folds into a pocketable size. But it would need to have an external display while folded to enable basic, and ideally one-handed, smartphone functionality. It would do double-duty as a new pocketable 2-in–1. Such a folding gadget, though, has a wrinkle or two in it.

We’re talking about Apple, so it’s doubtful that it would make a foldable device. While it has shown off its great origami skills with clamshell Macbooks, Smart Covers for iPads, and the Magic Keyboard for iPad Pros, the company is in the business of selling hardware. This means Apple would be better served if it sold customers two separate devices, an iPhone and an iPad, rather than one combined.

For argument’s sake, though, say Apple creates a great 2-in–1 folding phone-tablet (I didn’t say phablet). Being a phone, it would require a cellular modem, which would mean the mini-tablet would have a constant data connection and never need to rely on wifi hotspot tethering. While that is convenient, a combo cellular-enabled iPad plus iPhone would be extremely expensive: good for Apple’s margins, bad for customers in an economy imperiled with inflation. And imagine the costly Apple Care+ add-on that would likely be required for such an intricate and complex device. Lastly, for a company bent on making the most beautiful displays, why would it add a glaring crease down the middle of one?

Crease or not, folding intricacy is a real issue. While Apple is the undisputed champion of quality computer hardware (most of the time), a folding display and case are inherently complex and costly. Such a device is likely to break and suffer from unreliability more than a simple flat phone or tablet. But if any can make this work, it’d be Apple. It has the expertise, and the marketing power, to enable the success of a folding tab-phone. And if it did, the upside for many customers like me, who want to keep things simple and affordable, is that Apple’s current flat iPhones would probably drop in price like “last-gen” tech.

Apple might someday join the fold of folding-phone companies, but even if it does, I still have little interest overall in the potential of a folding iPhone. I’m sure the company would figure out where to put the Apple logo when folded and unfolded, but I like the simplicity and familiarity of a flat iPhone; same goes for the iPad. I don’t want my display to bend or break. The current devices work, and the saying works too: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And since folding/bending screens are more likely to break, they’re more likely to need fixing than flat screens. Today’s small phones, tablets, and laptops are already mobile and portable, so there’s not much need for foldability to create more portability.

Now that I think about it, if Apple were to make a folding device, I’d be more interested in a dual-screen pocketable clamshell like a Nintendo DS or the Microsoft Surface Duo. Connect two flat displays together and create an interface and operating system optimized for them. Apple could make that hardware and software work wonderfully together and maybe solve a problem people didn’t even know they had. But this is fraught with similar cost and complexity issues like a folding phone display.

Leaving well-enough alone is good advice, but for the tech industry, innovation is paramount. It keeps companies competitive and lucrative, and it enables people to do things either better than before or that were once impossible. Where the balance will be found remains to be seen. For now, I’d stick with the flat side of things, yet time will tell how this story unfolds.