Apple, foldable phones and the actual value of innovation

2023 will possibly be the year we'll settle this argument once and for all

A foldable iPhone may or may not be slated for 2023 - but if it is, then Apple will make sure it’s not a typical first-gen product. (Image: Foldable.news)


Three days ago a new rumor based on a new analyst's prediction based on another rumor about Apple surfaced on the Web, this time regarding the Cupertino giant's alleged plans for a foldable smartphone/tablet hybrid device. These kinds of speculative "news" articles would have been dismissed as pure conjecture and clickbait material under normal circumstances, but the analyst happened to be Ming-Chi Kuo who does have a very good track record as far as future Apple products are concerned. Kuo believes that the Americans will indeed offer a foldable device in 2023 incorporating a Samsung high-resolution flexible OLED display and silver nanowire touch solution developed by TPK.

What was as much or even more interesting than that were the user comments under almost all of those articles. Many comments were mocking or outright dismissive of the idea of a foldable iPhone. Others expressed disinterest or indifference, claiming that Apple should be focusing on other things. There were quite a few applauding ones, just like anyone knowing how Apple fanboys think would expect. Some enthusiastic ones too. There were even a handful of comments made by Samsung fanboys - yes, it seems that those do exist surprisingly - that picked on Apple fanboys regarding foldables in general and that oh-so-abused term, "innovation".

That's where things got really interesting, as this discussion about Apple, Samsung and foldable devices illustrates why "innovation" is a misunderstood - and thus abused - term.

The iPod was not innovative in the sense that it was the first MP3 player, of course, but did offer innovative features and functionality that set it apart from the competition. (Image: Brett Jordan, Unsplash)

When something is "innovative" is, by definition, new. It's something that has never been done before or done so differently - and, presumably, better - than similar things already available, that it deserves recognition. One would assume that, in the tech world, giant corporations with decades of experience in research would be the ones coming up with most of the innovative stuff (their press releases claim as much after all), but that's not what's happening in practice. Totally new ideas do not come about often, when they do it is usually in small rather than big companies' labs or in university research workshops and they are hardly known to the public for a long time, years maybe.

Innovative ideas are rather quiet or even invisible at first. At some point, they do reach the prototype stage. What happens after that is... complicated: small companies can either attempt to bring to market actual products based on that innovative idea they came up with or they can work with a tech giant that can offer scale, marketing and brand to that idea.

Or it can happen the way it happened with foldable phones.

Ever heard of Royole? No? It's the company that actually launched the first smartphone with a foldable screen back in December 2018, the FlexPai. Royole, Samsung, Huawei, Motorola and others were all working on foldable phones in parallel. Royole was first to market, even if the FlexPai was an embarrassingly bad product. Did Royole innovate? No, not really. Flexible screens have been in the hands of manufacturers for almost a decade. Did Samsung innovate when it brought to market the less flawed but still clearly unfit for release Galaxy Fold a few months later? Of course not. Did it claim that it innovated by offering the first foldable smartphone? Of course it did.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold smartphone launched with a number of glaring problems and omissions just so the Koreans could claim they innovated in the mobile device space. (Image: Mika Baumeister, Unsplash)


It's this exact point that very few people seem to be taking into account when talking about "innovation": being first to market is important for history books and Wikipedia entries but not much else. The nature of technology itself dictates that almost every single "first" product is imperfect at best, problematic or downright insulting at worst. Innovation in and of itself is not that great for consumers and businesses alike when products based on that are problematic. It's a bragging rights thing. Not a thing of actual value.

This is where Apple comes in. Apple would like to think of itself as an innovator and yes, the company does innovate from time to time. But what it does much better is perfecting someone else's imperfect first or second or even third attempt at something new. Apple did not invent the MP3 player. It did not invent the smartphone. It did not invent the tablet. It did not invent apps or mobile Internet access. It did, however, work out the kinks and released its own first such product, be it the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad or the App Store, in a much, much better state than the competition did.

Nobody even remembers today which manufacturer released the first mobile phone with a touchscreen or the first one with the ability to install apps when connected to a computer or how these devices were called. But everyone knows that the iPhone practically kickstarted the smartphone revolution all on its own. So maybe this is what real innovation looks like: it is the offering of something that's maybe not new anymore but still novel, in a manner that it's frictionless, trouble-free, influential. In a manner that mainstream consumers can understand and appreciate. Innovation for its own sake is meaningless. Innovation people will make good use of to improve their lives is not.

Apple is better at perfecting than innovating but, truth be told, its products make a difference in the market much more often this way. (Image: Apple)


In 2023 Apple may or may not release a foldable iPhone. If it does, Samsung will be releasing a Galaxy Fold 5 in the same timeframe. But if Apple does release a foldable iPhone, it will make sure that mistakes made by Royole, Samsung, Huawei, Motorola and others in the meantime will not be repeated by that foldable iPhone. It will make sure that software will work well with this different hardware. It may even throw in a few genuinely innovative (heh) features that actually take advantage of this hybrid form factor. Ιf it does all those things, then Ming-Chi Kuo's estimate of 20 million foldable iPhones sold in 2023 might prove to be a conservative one while Samsung will be sending out press releases insisting that it created the foldable device category. Bets, anyone?


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