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How Apple can make a foldable iPhone good

And no, the answer is not "a hinge."

If all the rumors are right, you won't be able to escape foldable phones if you try. 

The latest scuttlebutt is that Apple is on track to join Samsung and Huawei in a growing group of device makers planning to make a foldable phone. While Samsung's may arrive by the end of 2018, a foldable iPhone is said to be on target for 2020.

AppleSamsung's and Huawei all have the R&D dollars and engineering smarts to make a foldable phone that people might actually want. But even if Apple's foldable phone is years behind its competitors', Apple's status as a mainstream leader could turn a "niche" foldable phone for early adopters into a "must-have."

Now playing: Watch this: Apple applies for a foldable phone patent
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Foldable phones have been in the works for years, slyly promising to double the screen real estate in a smaller footprint. That means more raw screen space for you. The new design will also shake up the tired, flat-slab-of-glass design that's reigned over us since the iPhone's 2007 debut. In phone years, that's practically the dawn of time.

What would a foldable iPhone look like? It could mimic 2017's ZTE Axon M, which has two screens that open like a book. Or it could take on a new design entirely -- perhaps a single, foldable internal screen that flexes and bends. 

Whatever the case, there are the highest priorities that a foldable iPhone would have to address.

It must look like a standard iPhone in 'folded' mode

Whether Apple sticks to a design from a previously discovered patent application or attempts something new, it's got to look like a familiar iPhone when it's in its most compact state.

ZTE acknowledged that most of the time, its foldable Axon M will be used like today's shingle-shaped devices. Two screens that fold open like a book presents some use cases with great potential, but above and beyond that, a foldable phone's "resting" state needs to feel normal, or nobody will want to use it at all.

It needs to unfold into an iPad

How do you make a foldable iPhone different than an iPad? In a perfect world, a smaller-package device that folds out into a full-size iPad would, in essence, replace the iPad, and of course throw in voice and data capabilities right from the start.

We'd want a foldable iPhone to adopt iPad features, too, like split screen mode for making inboxes and emails easy to read and manage. The second screen could host a separate app, and contain a mode to configure itself into a digital keyboard, giving you a tiny workstation that you can pack up and take with you when you're done.

Oh, and whether or not it can be stored in the foldable iPhone's body, it should support Apple's Pencil stylus, too.

It needs to double-down on Face ID

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What if your phone looked like this?

James Martin/CNET

The iPhone X is the only iPhone with Face ID, but we expect Apple to roll this out to future iPhones and other devices, including -- eventually -- iPads and MacBooks. And that means it'll be on our fantasy 2020 foldable iPhone, too.

But before we get there, Face ID needs to level up. Besides becoming better overall -- working nearly every time, identifying your face at deeper angles and even horizontally -- the foldable iPhone will need two selfie cameras: one above the front "external" screen and one for the fold-out "inside" screen. ZTE's Axon M has just one, and using it requires you to flip the phone around, which is inconvenient as anything.

More importantly, Face ID on a foldable iPhone would need to become dual-screen aware. In other words, you'd need to be able to unlock the phone in "closed" mode, and have it remain so when you unfold it. Or, vice versa.

Siri will need to become dual-screen savvy, too

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The Lenovo CPlus concept phone wraps around your wrist like a watch. 

James Martin/CNET

Siri has fallen way behind Google, Amazon and even Microsoft's voice assistants. Compared to the rest of the pack, Siri's results aren't as varied, and generally are less accurate and less helpful.

While any Apple product would benefit from a better, smarter Siri, the assistant could do double duty on a foldable iPhone.

Imagine you unfold the iPhone and then command, "Hey Siri, open Super Mario Run in full screen mode." "Hey Siri, open YouTube in mirror mode." "Hey Siri, open Safari and Maps." The point is, you don't want Siri doing its thing on the "wrong" screen. That's gonna take some serious contextual programming.

A foldable iPhone needs to be a better iPhone

A foldable iPhone would be the new king of the hill for Apple, with a nosebleed price not for the faint of heart. That's why it would also have to be a better iPhone. It can't afford to sacrifice usability, camera quality, wireless charging or battery life to make it fold -- or else few buyers will take it seriously.

It wouldn't hurt if our fantasy features for upcoming models -- from an in-screen fingerprint reader to a USB-C connector -- need to be baseline requirements in the foldable model.

A foldable iPhone needs to be a great foldable phone, period

Whether it's an iPhone, Android or some other future OS, a good foldable phone will need to hit plenty of basic design considerations. Like it:

  • Is balanced and comfortable to hold
  • Is durable, with good build quality (because a foldable design obviates the possibility of a traditional case). Hinges and folding parts can't wear and break
  • Easily does everyday things, like take photos and text
  • Doesn't sacrifice important features, like an excellent camera
  • Has long battery life without making the phone heavy or imbalanced
  • Has optimized apps and games that take advantage of both screens (like the Nintendo 2DS)
  • Is easy to switch among screen modes (e.g. full screen, dual screen)
  • Has apps that remember which of these modes you prefer
  • Lets motion mean something. If you have an app open, unfolding the phone could automatically launch into full-screen mode, and vice versa

Read next: Why you would (and wouldn't) want a foldable phone