iOS 17 Proves Apple Doesn't Need a Foldable Phone... Yet
Commentary: Apple's iOS 17 update is the latest sign that the company is evolving the way it thinks about the iPhone's screen.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
Smartphones have more or less looked identical to one another for the past decade, but companies like Samsung, Motorola and Google are changing that with screens that bend and fold. Almost every major smartphone maker has released a foldable phone or is planning to, with Apple being the main exception.
Android phone makers clearly see the future of the smartphone as devices that can fold in half to more easily fit in your pocket or fold open to double as a tablet. But Apple is taking a decidedly different approach. Rather than using new hardware designs to expand the way we use our mobile devices, the iPhone maker is using its software to bring new use cases to its devices. Instead of physically changing the shape of the iPhone's screen to fit more apps or provide a bigger display for watching shows, it's morphing the software in ways that let you use your phone differently.
Apple's iOS 17 update, which launched in beta on Wednesday and officially arrives this fall, is the latest example of the company's efforts in this regard. The software introduces a feature called StandBy mode, which essentially turns your mobile device into a miniature smart display like the Echo Show or Google Nest Hub.
Though Apple's StandBy mode and foldable phones may seem unrelated, they do share an important connection. They both represent efforts to evolve the way our phones present information, aligning with the bigger role mobile devices have come to play in our lives over the past 15 years.
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StandBy mode works by providing a full-screen view of apps like the clock, your music player or your calendar when your iPhone is charging and positioned in landscape mode. It makes your iPhone function more like a smart display by providing the option to dedicate the entire screen to a specific app or feature, making it easier to see from a distance. By doing this, StandBy mode gives your iPhone a new role, enabling it to function as a bedside clock or a miniature Amazon Echo Show type of device.
Siri is optimized for StandBy view, which makes sense given that voice control will likely be a big part of the experience since your phone will be resting on a table or propped up on a stand rather than in your hand. Apple's Live Activities feature also works in this mode, so you should be able to see tidbits like your Uber ETA without reaching for your phone.
Your iPhone can also surface contextual information by rotating a collection of widgets based on factors such as the time or your location, a feature Apple calls Smart Stacks. Though it isn't specific to StandBy, it's easy to see how Smart Stacks can be especially helpful in this mode. Instead of having your phone turn into a black slab when you aren't using it, you can have it pull up things like the weather or your next meeting as needed.
Companies like Samsung, Motorola, Google, Oppo and Huawei have been using foldable designs rather than software alone to give our phones new roles. While Apple's StandBy mode lets your phone function as a smart display, phones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Oppo Find N2 can double as a tablet when opened. Motorola's new Razr Plus flip phone can also serve as a tiny smart display thanks to its bendable design and useful cover screen. When I reviewed that device, I propped the Razr Plus open like a tent with the cover screen facing outward, enabling me to see the time and which song was playing without reaching for my phone.
StandBy may be the most prominent example of how Apple is changing the way we use our phones in iOS 17, but it isn't the only one. The update will also bring interactive widgets to your iPhone, meaning you'll be able to perform tasks like checking off reminders and controlling your smart lights with just a tap from the home screen. The current version of the iPhone's widgets launch the corresponding app when tapped rather than allowing you to take an action.
Older features like the Dynamic Island and always-on display, both of which debuted on the iPhone 14 Pro series last year, are also part of Apple's efforts to upgrade the way we use our phones by changing the way software is presented on screen. The Dynamic Island, for example, lets you multitask more easily by showing sports scores or music that's currently playing near the top of the screen, preventing you from jumping between apps as often. The always-on display lets you view the time and other information without reaching for your phone.
Features like StandBy and the Dynamic Island won't make your phone feel as radically different as a foldable screen would. But they still show that Apple is trying to make your iPhone feel more useful by updating the way apps and other features behave on screen. That could be particularly important for Apple, considering it'll likely be quite some time before we see a foldable iPhone.
Some analysts predict that a foldable iPhone may not arrive until at least 2025. That's according to estimates from Ross Young, analyst and CEO of Display Supply Chain Consultants (via 9to5Mac), and Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst for TF International Securities who's known for his Apple product predictions. Samsung, meanwhile, is about to launch the fifth generation of its Galaxy Z Fold and Galaxy Z Flip devices.
Apple's absence from the foldable phone space comes as no surprise. The company typically waits until technology matures so it can release a more compelling product before entering a new device category. This approach has been effective with smartwatches and tablets, so it seems plausible that Apple would pursue a similar strategy with foldables. (That's if Apple is indeed working on a foldable phone, of course).
Though foldable phones have progressed tremendously and grown more popular in the past four years since the first Galaxy Fold arrived, they still face important challenges. The Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Google Pixel Fold each cost roughly $1,800, making them a luxury purchase for many consumers. Early reports of broken screens on the Pixel Fold also show that durability is still a concern with foldable phones. Perhaps Apple is investigating ways to solve issues like durability and high prices behind the scenes before introducing its own foldable, but there's no way to know for sure until Apple makes an announcement.
In the meantime, Apple will likely keep finding new ways to make the iPhone feel fresh and relevant through software updates like these. The company usually releases new iPhone models every fall, which bring upgrades to everything from the camera to the processor to the display. But it's the software that makes those hardware leaps feel useful and innovative.
In fact, makers of foldable phones may be able to learn a thing or two from Apple's approach. While having a giant screen that can fold down to the size of a phone can be useful, companies like Samsung and Google still have some work to do when it comes to finding interesting new ways to put those flexible screens to use with fresh software.