Oh, look, another rumor about an Apple device with a folding display. It seems the rumor mill has moved on from “folding iPhone” to “folding MacBook” now, at least. It’s tempting to think that Apple is about to bring about some sort of folding-device revolution, but you shouldn’t get your hopes up about it. We’ve been here before.
The latest “Apple’s going to make a phone/tablet/laptop with a folding display” rumor comes courtesy of Ross Young of Display Supply Chain Consultants. He says Apple is discussing foldable displays with sizes up to 20 inches with its suppliers, then speculates about the ways in which this could be made into a folding MacBook (or iMac or…some sort of Mac).
Oh, and in the same report, he claims the foldable iPhone, rumored to be called the iPhone Flip, is now aimed at a 2025 release date.
It’s not that these rumors are wrong, because Apple does indeed explore lots of form factors and technologies before deciding what to actually bring to market. It’s just that we keep hearing that Apple gear with a folding display is just around the corner, and the corner keeps moving. It’s The Boy Who Cried Wolf Folding Display.
The amazing folding iPhone of 2020
Remember the folding iPhone? Back in 2017, there were rumors that Apple was working on just such a thing, and several patents had been awarded to the company for folding phone/tablets with OLED displays. It was going to drop in 2020, a nice, safe, three-years-away window.
When 2020 came and went with no folding iPhone, the date fell back to 2023. You know, just two or three years away. Long enough for Apple to change its mind and everyone to forget about how that rumor didn’t pan out.
Now it’s 2022 and the foldable iPhone is due in…
Three years?! What are the odds? And just to sweeten the deal, we’ll throw in some sort of crazy 20-inch foldable MacBook iMac hybrid computer thing. If I was a betting man, I would put odds that 2025 will come and go with neither a folding iPhone nor a folding Mac.
Folding displays just aren’t that useful
The problem isn’t Apple, really. And it’s not that these supply-chain consultants are wrong, either. Apple almost certainly does meet with suppliers of all kinds, and probably even buys some number of foldable displays, all so that it can develop new products and/or patents in its labs. But for every product Apple ships, there are probably a dozen that don’t get off the drawing board, and a handful of others that don’t make it out of the lab. We’ve read dozens of reports of nifty-sounding Apple patents that have never made it into a product.
Apple is nothing if not practical about shipping products. It’s not going to ship five million folding iPhones or 100,000 folding 20-inch Macs. It wants to do numbers ten times that big. Even as a premium, top-tier device, the ability to make lots of these things is a considerable roadblock. The company might develop something like a super-high-end AR headset meant to do small numbers, but only as a stepping stone to a mass-market device.
Adam Patrick Murray/IDG
And folding devices have lots of problems. Seams. Hinges. Limitations on cases. Limitations on cameras. Taking up lots of potential internal room with hinge and display mechanisms that could be used for the battery. Limited room for logic boards and poor cooling. Some of these problems can be solved, sort of, but they add a ton of cost.
All so that you can have a phone less waterproof or dustproof and less resistant to surviving drops and bumps. And probably with less battery life or lower performance than the equivalent device in the good ‘ol black rectangle design.
You may have noticed that MacBooks already fold. The display is on one half, and the physical keyboard is on the other. Some argue that Apple would put a display on both halves, but I find that a hard pill to swallow. After all the pushback to the shallow and stiff feel of the butterfly-keyboard MacBooks, the company eventually reversed course with a return to the beloved scissor-switch design, and is even phasing out the Touch Bar. Apple has for years steadfastly resisted putting a touch-capable display on any Mac. Now it’s going to make the entire keyboard a touch display with no key travel at all? Something that unfolds into an ungodly huge 20-inch mess that would be the laptop equivalent of unfolding an entire newspaper on a crowded bus?
Maybe Apple will one day sell a folding iPhone, and a folding 20-inch Mac, maybe it won’t. But when we hear about it in a year or two I’m sure it’s going to be just three years away.
I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life – over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.