If there’s one thing that makes many iPhone enthusiasts envious of the world of Android smartphones, it’s the much wider range of designs and form factors available. While Apple refines its designs every few years, it’s rarely done anything that most people would consider radical.
Perhaps the most significant departure from traditional smartphone designs has been a return to the foldable phones of yesteryear. Samsung’s latest Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Z Flip 4 piqued my interest more than ever, but even before they came out there were other phones that I wished Apple thought differently about their hardware designs. And while I don’t doubt that Apple’s hardware could be great for a foldable iPhone, I think the real battle is making iOS useful for a foldable iPhone.
Foldable plans from Apple
Of course, there have been rumors for years that Apple is spewing out ideas for a foldable iPhone. Reports of partnerships with LG Display surfaced in 2017, and some sources indicate that Apple has been actively testing hinges and screens in recent years.
There’s no doubt that Apple wants to be absolutely sure they’re getting the right hardware before they even think about releasing a foldable iPhone. It’s not in corporate culture to publicly fail with prototype-like devices. However, as Samsung recently showed us, there’s a lot more to creating a foldable iPhone than just the hardware. If you want to create the best possible user experience, the software must also be up to the task. And that’s another area where Apple has cut its work.
A Tale of Two Foldables
Thanks to the willingness of companies like Samsung and Motorola to iterate more openly, we’ve had a chance to witness the struggle to build foldable smartphones in a world where operating systems and apps haven’t quite caught up with the idea yet. That said, we’ve also seen notable improvements over the past few years, culminating in Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Z Flip 4 – two very different devices making the most of recent improvements in Android 12L.
It’s a disservice to lump Samsung’s Z-series foldable devices into the same category just because they both have foldable screens. That’s where their similarities begin and end.
The Galaxy Z Flip 4 is a fun and stylish device that harks back to the days of slick flip phones like the original Motorola Razr. In contrast, the Z Fold 4 is arguably on the other end of that spectrum – a phone that unfolds into a tablet-like device for more serious and professional work.
Samsung is under no illusions here; This is how the company presented the devices during its Galaxy Unpacked event earlier this month. The Z Flip 4 was about getting out there, enjoying life experiences and making the most of its cameras and Flex Mode capabilities. When it came to the Z Fold 4, Samsung spent more time talking about improvements to Microsoft Office and video conferencing capabilities.
Still, these are things most of us only dreamed of when Samsung debuted its original Fold a few years ago. But while hardware designs have become significantly more reliable, phones haven’t changed nearly as much as the software that runs on them.
Which direction will Apple go?
It’s hard to say at the moment what Apple’s first foldable iPhone will look like, but it’s clear that Apple faces some challenges when it comes to equipping iOS or iPadOS for the task.
This might not be that difficult if Apple decides to go the Z Flip route and focus on fun and occasional use rather than trying to create something that unfolds into an iPad Mini. The latter idea scares me a little more since Apple doesn’t seem to have really grasped the concept of multitasking in iPadOS.
The iPad is a phenomenal device when it comes to single-task activities. It does a lot of things very well – as long as you only want to do one thing at a time. However, many people have complained for years that the multitasking interface is cryptic at best and unusable at worst — complaints that often come from Apple’s biggest fans.
Two years ago I bought an iPad Pro with Apple’s new Magic Keyboard with the intention of using it as my primary device for everyday use. While it couldn’t replace my MacBook for more demanding tasks like video editing, I figured it would be an excellent lightweight device for research and writing. It was, but its limitations quickly became frustrating and often pushed me back into the more open freedom of my MacBook Pro.
The iPad remains a single-task device, and while Apple’s foray into the Stage Manager with iPadOS 16 offers a glimmer of hope for more, it’s too early to say how that will play out. It’s not clear how well Stage Manager is even for a full-sized tablet at the moment, and I can’t imagine Apple translating it to a foldable smartphone.
Play it safe
Perhaps a big part of the problem is that Apple made it way too easy with iOS. Unlike Android, which has to support an almost unimaginable number of different screen designs, iOS has had to contend with fewer than a dozen in the entire 15-year history of the iPhone, from the original iPhone’s 3.5-inch, 320-resolution screen x 240 to the 2,778 x 1,284 pixel display found on today’s iPhone 13 Pro Max. Screen aspect ratios have changed even less frequently, and the Apple Watch is the closest Apple has ever come to developing a secondary display for the iPhone.
Apple’s decision to err on the side of caution with its hardware has made iOS wonderfully predictable – to the delight of app developers everywhere – but it’s also made it considerably less flexible.
Apple needs to fold iOS properly
It’s hard to imagine how iOS as we know it today would translate to something as Relatively Straightforward as the Z Flip 4. Even that would require a significant redesign of the iOS design. Getting into a full-fledged, business-class foldable device would likely mean developing an entirely new “foldable operating system,” and Apple would have to think a lot more about enabling multitasking than it has done so far.
That’s not to say it’s out of the reach of Apple’s software engineers. The company has some amazingly brilliant people on this team, but it often seems like their plates are already full. It will also likely take more out-of-the-box thinking to pull this off, moving away from the stable but solid foundations of iOS as it now exists to venture into new waters and at the same time try to avoid being clever with user interface designs that are often more whimsical than practical.
I’m sure Apple is aware of this, but I’m more cautious in my optimism that its designers and engineers will be able to implement it in a way that makes sense. Apple has some very popular and successful products, but they don’t always hit the jackpot immediately. Properly converting iOS for a foldable iPhone is no small feat. If Apple takes the time to get this right, it’s likely what’s holding Apple’s foldable plans more than the hardware itself.