Apple considers foldable iPhone; Minor changes planned for models in 2021

Apple began work early on an iPhone with a foldable screen, a potential rival to similar devices from Samsung Electronics Co. and others, although only minor changes are planned for this year’s iPhone line.

The Cupertino, Calif., Company has developed prototype foldable screens for in-house testing, but has not finalized plans to launch a foldable iPhone. Development work hasn’t expanded beyond a display, which means that Apple doesn’t yet have full cell phone prototypes in its labs, according to a person familiar with the job who asked not to be identified and discuss private matters.

Like the Samsung Galaxy Fold, the Motorola Razr reboot, and other offerings from Chinese companies including Huawei, a foldable iPhone would allow Apple to make a device with a larger screen in a pocket package. Apple has been discussing a number of foldable screen sizes internally, including one that unfolds to a size similar to the 6.7-inch display on the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Current foldable phones have screens that are 6 and 8 inches unfolded.

The foldable Apple screens under test, like Samsung’s, have a largely invisible hinge with the electronics behind the display, the person said. Other companies, including Microsoft, recently launched devices with exposed hinges that separate two different control panels. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

This would be a radical departure from Apple. Arguably the most successful consumer technology product in history, the breakthrough all-screen touchable smartphone is helping make Apple the most valuable company in the world. However, a foldable iPhone is likely years away or ultimately may never be introduced. The company is currently focused on rolling out its flagship iPhones and next-generation iPads later this year.

Apple is not planning any major changes for this year’s iPhone line, as the smartphone has improved in 2020, including 5G and new designs, according to people familiar with the situation. At Apple, engineers consider the next iPhones to be just another “S” version of the device, the nomenclature usually given to new iPhones with minor upgrades.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also made product development difficult with Apple hardware engineers working only a few days a week and in limited numbers in the company’s Silicon Valley offices. That meant moving the work of Apple’s engineers to China.

Last year, the pandemic delayed the release of the iPhone 12 by several weeks, but Apple was able to include almost all of its intended functionality except for an accessory called “AirTags” for finding physical items like backpacks and keys. The company now plans to launch these accessories this year and has plans for several accessories, including a leather keychain. Samsung announced a similar gizmo earlier this month.

Although the changes will be minor overall, Apple is still testing a key upgrade for 2021: an on-screen fingerprint reader. This would add a new method for users to unlock their iPhone that goes beyond a passcode and facial recognition with facial recognition. Apple began moving away from fingerprint sensors in 2017 with the introduction of the iPhone X, but Touch ID has been a feature on Mac laptops and cheaper iPhones since then. Qualcomm Inc., which is equipping Apple with 5G modems, announced a faster on-screen fingerprint sensor earlier this month.

It is useful in an environment where users wear masks that are often incompatible with face recognition. An in-screen fingerprint reader, which has also been available on Android phones for several years, might also be faster than facial recognition for some users. Apple isn’t going to remove its facial recognition scanner, however, as it’s still useful for augmented reality and camera functions.

Apple has also discussed removing the charging port for some iPhone models in favor of wireless charging. With the iPhone 12, the company switched to a magnetic MagSafe charging system and removed the charging stone from the iPhone box last year. This charging technology is also carried back to the MacBook Pro.

Apple is planning a new iPad Pro for its tablet line, which is similar to the current model, but offers a MiniLED display and a much faster processor. A thinner and lighter entry-level iPad using the same design as the 2019 iPad Air is also in the works.

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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