It’s much too early to reject a folding iPhone [Opinion]

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Don’t close your mind to the potential of the folding iPhone.
Don’t close your mind to the potential of the folding iPhone. This is just one of many possibilities.
Photo: Foldable.News

Deciding now that an folding iPhone is a terrible idea is premature. There just isn’t enough information yet to judge whether any such device is something you’ll want. And it’s betting against Apple’s history of success in areas where others have failed.

While the first foldable devices from other companies have serious flaws, that in no way means any eventual Apple device with a flexible screen will be equally bad. There’s actually plenty of reason to think it won’t.

Lessons from history

Too many people have looked at the Samsung Galaxy Fold ($1,980) and Huawei Mate X ($2,600) and prematurely declared the entire class of flexible phone DOA — dead on arrival.

Deciding today you don’t want a folding iPhone based on the high prices and clunky designs of the first foldable Android models is the equivalent of someone in 1886 stating they’ll never get an automobile after looking at the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. This was an entirely impractical three-wheeler that cost $1,000 at a time when a skilled worker earned $750 a year.

Henry Ford released the Model T, a much more practical design, a couple of decades later. Obviously, this went on to be hugely successful. To spell out the lesson here, a company that gets the design right wins, not the first to market.

Demand is a tricky thing

And Ford wasn’t responding to huge pent-up demand for an automobile. People in 1908 had been using horses for thousands of years and saw no need for a replacement. But Ford presented them with a product they didn’t know they needed until they saw it.

That’s Apple’s business model. Co-founder Steve Jobs famously said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.“ Yes, that comes across as arrogant. Jobs was like that.

But he was right, time after time. When the iPhone 1 debuted, tiny flip phones were whet everyone used to make phone calls and send texts, Apple’s offering was judged to be too different. Consider this review from the The Guardian from 2007, “Apple’s iPhone combines a phone, music and video player with web and email capabilities, but researchers found demand for these converged devices was lowest in affluent countries.”

In other words, if you asked someone on the street in 2006 if they wanted a device like today’s iPhone or Android, most of them would told you “no.” And you know how that turned out.

The situations are similar with the Apple Watch, iPad and iPod. Very few people wanted these until they saw them, then Apple sold tens of millions of them.

Some things we know, some we don’t

It doesn’t take another Steve Jobs to know that most people want bigger phone screens. Apple’s largest model is usually its best selling. But the 6.5-inch iPhone XS Max is as large as a phone can get and stay somewhat pocketable. There’s never going to be a 7-inch iPhone XII. The only way to go forward is something radically new, and flexible displays are the best option available.

One reason to reserve judgement on the folding iPhone is there’s better tech right around the corner.  The foldable devices debuting this year are already being criticized for their plastic screens, but Corning is almost finished developing a flexible glass screen. It’s quite possible Apple will use it.

But the top reason to wait and see is it’s literally impossible to say what overall design Apple will use. There are too many possibilities. Even Samsung’s and Huawei’s offerings use different ones. Apple’s chief designer Jony Ive could produce a device with the screen that folds to be on the inside. Maybe it’ll fold with the display on the outside. The screen could be a big square that folds into a rectangle, or it could be long and thin when open, like a current iPhone screen but twice as tall. Heck, it could even wrap around your wrist like a watch.

TCL folding phone designs
These are just some of the possible designs a folding iPhone might use.
Photo: TCL/Cnet

Keep an open mind on the folding iPhone

There one thing can be confident of: a foldable iPhone is not going to cost $2000 or more. Samsung and Huawei’s offerings in this category are niche products for a slim slice of the market. Apple doesn’t do that. If it makes a folding phone, it’ll be priced where millions of potential customers can afford it. Realistically, it’ll be expensive but not ludicrous. You can say the same about the iPhone XS Max.

Also, you can be confident Apple isn’t going drop the traditional smartphone shape even after it produces a folding model. You’ll be able to stick with the tried and true for the foreseeable future.

But there’s a good chance you won’t want to. Stating now that you’ll never, ever, ever get a folding iPhone is simply shortsighted. It ignores Apple’s long history of making successful products that people didn’t know they had to have until they saw one. So wait until you see one.