It's easy to see the appeal in the concept - you could use a standard iPhone display when out and about, and when you want to play a game or read an article, simply ‘unfold’ the iPhone and increase the screen size to that of an iPad Mini. Alternatively, Apple could go down the same route as the Motorola Razr and Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, halving the size of the smartphone display when not in use.
There have been many rumours over the years, some stretching as far back as 2016, suggesting Apple was actively looking for a flexible OLED manufacturer to produce panels for a foldable iPhone, and a report from 2019 suggested Apple had moved on to the testing stage.
There have also been multiple patents filed over the years and hit-and-miss leaker Jon Prosser has even shared a few details on what to expect from the foldable iPhone, suggesting that something is in the works at Apple - more on that later.
Rumours aside, there are a few issues surrounding foldable smartphones in general right now, namely price, durability and quality. It’s likely that Apple is working on these issues behind closed doors and it’s safe to assume that Apple won’t utter a whisper about the foldable iPhone until it’s near-perfect.
That might mean the device in question is still a few years away but let’s be honest, it’ll be worth the wait, won’t it? And by then, the idea of a folding iPhone might not seem so sci-fi...
When will Apple release a foldable iPhone?
That’s the million-dollar question, right there.
The first rumblings of a foldable iPhone came way back in 2018, with Bank of America analyst Merrill Lynch claiming that Apple was preparing to release a foldable phone in 2020, but of course, that never happened. So, when could we see the release of a foldable iPhone?
A September 2020 Weibo leak claimed Apple had placed an order of foldable displays from Samsung. These are reportedly samples for a number of different designs rather than a finalised product, suggesting Apple is only in the very early stages of developing a foldable iPhone. Newer rumours suggest Apple has since parted ways with Samsung, and is now working with LG on the prototype display.
That's in-line with a January 2020 Bloomberg report that suggests that Apple is still working on prototype foldable screens, and that work on the smartphone itself is yet to begin.
When it comes to specific dates, leaker Jon Prosser's inside source claims that Apple won't launch the foldable iPhone until 2023 at the earliest, and that's in-line with predictions from investment firm EqualOcean and popular Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo too.
Kuo claimed in January 2021 that it'll only launch in 2023 if Apple manages to solve "key technology and mass production issues" this year, but notes that it has "not yet kicked off" so plans are subject to change.
However, in a May 2021 follow-up note, Kuo doubled down on the 2023 release date and suggested that Apple will ship as many as 15-20 million units when it is eventually released.
With most signs pointing towards the foldable still being in the early stages of development, a release in 2022 or 2023 looks like the safer bet.
If you can’t wait that long, take a look at what we consider to be the best iPhone right now.
What will the foldable iPhone look like?
While many assume that Apple would go down the same route as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold and Huawei Mate Xs, producing a foldable iPhone that folds down the middle like a book, current rumours detail several different possibilities.
With prevalent issues around durability, the noticeable crease in foldable displays and the overall quality of the finish, one of Apple’s prototypes might actually make more sense.
In a series of June 2020 tweets, Jon Prosser revealed that the foldable iPhone may not be comprised of a single flexible display. Instead, the leaker claims that one ‘foldable’ iPhone prototype is comprised of two separate displays, connected by a central hinge.
With all the issues surrounding durability and cost of flexible display tech, that could be a smart alternative.
However, a Bloomberg report from early 2021 suggests Apple has developed a prototype foldable display that, like the foldables from Samsung and co., has an invisible hinge, a step away from the two-display design detailed by Prosser in 2020.
This was reiterated in a February 2021 report from Prosser, who seemingly no longer thinks that Apple is going down the dual-display route, now suggesting that Apple is keen to develop something akin to the Samsung's Galazy Z Flip clamshell form factor.
The leaker didn't go into much more detail other than suggesting that the company is considering "fun colours" for the foldable iPhone, possibly along the lines of the colourful iPhone 12 range, but it's likely way too early on for Apple to make final decisions on colour schemes.
A prediction from EqualOcean, a Canda-based investment research firm, also suggests that Apple is working on a single-display foldable, but rather one that could resemble the iPad mini when unfolded. The firm predicts that Apple will launch a foldable iPhone with a screen size of between 7.3 and 7.6in when unfolded, and that it'd be compatible with the Apple Pencil too, but competing analyst Ming-Chi Kuo details a possibly slightly larger 8in unfolded display in his recent prediction.
In fact, Kuo goes a step further by suggesting it'll have an 8in QHD+ flexible OLED display, and claims that it'll feature TPK's silver nanowire touch solution used in the HomePod Mini "because of its several advantages over SDC's Y-Octa technology".
Kuo believes that the latter could create a "long term competitive advantage" for Apple in the foldable market, as it's the "superior" option for future devices that feature multiple folds, rollable form factors and more.
Whatever the final form factor, industry sources suggest that LG is working with Apple on a prototype display for the foldable, although it's currently unclear whether it'll be manufactured by LG or in-house by Apple once the time comes.
Jon Prosser’s outlandish claims of a dual-screen iPhone were backed up less than a day later by an Apple patent discovered by Patently Apple. The patent describes a device consisting of two separate panels, connected together by a fabric hinge system.
It’s not the first patent to describe a foldable iPhone though. A separate patent for a “flexible display device” was filed back in 2018, and was a continuation of patents filed in 2016, 2014 and 2011. There’s also a separate 2016 patent that describes “an electronic device, comprising: a housing that bends about a bend axis; and a display in the housing that bends about the bend axis”.
There's also an interesting patent, which was filed in 2018, that outlines a tri-folding foldable smartphone that, unlike current foldables, folds in different directions. Per the patent filing, the double folding screen can be bent backwards or folded inward from either end, giving the user the freedom to use the foldable any way they like.
It could also allow Apple to produce a smartphone-sized foldable that folds out to something the size of an iPad, and it sounds a lot like the futuristic tablets used in Westworld too. An interesting concept, then.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the patent Apple filed outlining a method to avoid damaging displays when they’re bent. The patent for “Electronic Devices With Flexible Displays” suggests that damage is likely in cold conditions, and offers this viable solution - “the portion of the display that overlaps the bend axis may be self-heated by illuminating pixels”.
Another Patently Apple discovery showcases a novel concept where the crease doesn't run down the centre of the display but leaves a portion exposed when the device is folded, which is thought to serve as a secondary display or sorts for notifications and the like, similarly to the Galaxy Z Flip's external screen.
Apple has also filed patents detailing ways to get around the issue of creasing foldable displays. One such patent describes a system that allows the display to bow instead of fold to reduce the amount of stress on the panel itself, and it’s not dissimilar to the system found in the Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr.
Of course, it’s worth saying that Apple, like most tech companies, file patents all the time, and this isn’t necessarily indicative of what we’ll see on an upcoming iPhone or iPad, but it gives us a good idea of the avenues that Apple is considering.
Renders and concepts
Of course, it wouldn’t be a futuristic product without an equally outlandish concept or two to hype things up. Here’s a pick of our favourites found online:
This render, courtesy of LetsGoDigital, showcases a design similar to that of the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip.
And this one, from Roy Gilsing on behalf of Foldable Phone News, showcases something akin to the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold.
How much will the foldable iPhone cost?
That’s a difficult question to answer, not only due to the fact we don’t really know much about what the foldable iPhone will offer right now, but also because we don’t know when the foldable iPhone will be released.
Right now, foldable smartphones come at a hefty premium with the likes of the Galaxy Z Fold 2 coming in at £1,799/$1,999 and Huawei’s Mate Xs coming in at an eye-watering £2299, but as with all tech, the price will go down eventually.
We’re also in the dark as to what Apple could be planning. There are plenty of patents suggesting a number of prototypes are in the works, and the design and features on offer will largely reflect the price tag. It could be one of the ‘cheaper’ foldables, like the £1,300/$1,380 Galaxy Z Flip, or it could be one of the larger foldables with a larger price tag.
It’s impossible to say at this point, but it’s highly likely that it’ll be a premium product with a premium price tag to match.