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Want a foldable iPhone? It's coming in 2020, analysts say

An iPad that folds down into a phone -- it could happen.

Claire Reilly/CNET

If a foldable iPhone sounds crazy to you, just wait two years. 

Apple is reportedly planning to release in 2020 an iPhone that folds, according to analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch (via CNBC), citing several Apple suppliers as sources. The analysts speculate that a folding iPhone may be able to open up and be used like an iPad tablet.

The design could echo 2017's ZTE Axon M, a dual-screen handset that folds out into a larger screen. That form makes some functionality possible, like multitasking, mirroring the contents from one screen onto the other, and enlarging an app to full the full display space.

Foldable phones are an important frontier in smartphone innovation. Being able to reconfigure the screen and phone body in multiple ways will let phonemakers experiment with new hardware and sensors. As one of the world' top two phonemakers, Apple's interest in a foldable phone could help validate and popularize the concept, lifting it from a niche curiosity into a serious market product. 

Apple's chief competitor, Samsung, has been known to be working on foldable phones for a while, and we've heard from Samsung's head of mobile DJ Koh that the company may release a foldable phone as soon as this year. Unlike the Axon M, which pivots on a hinge, Samsung's folding phone may take advantage of its flexible OLED technology to create a folding display. Chinese phonemaker Huawei is also said to be eyeing a foldable design. 

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Apple's first OLED iPhone, the iPhone X, also uses a flexible OLED display that bends around itself to minimize bezels and maximize screen space. Its possible that the 2020 foldable iPhone uses this flexible OLED to create a display that folds in on itself. We've seen Apple entertain this idea in patent applications.

The Merrill Lynch analyst note mirrors a Korean report from last year, which claims that Apple is working with LG's OLED division to supply foldable screens for a future iPhone. Interestingly, the Korean report also claims that the folding iPhone could launch in 2020.

Phones that bend or fold may seem like a throwback to old-school clamshell designs, but they have the potential to break us from our smartphone rut. Samsung, Huawei and Apple's early work could be a sign of what's to come.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

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Article updated at 2:50pm PT: Minor edits.