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Apple maintained its position as the world’s largest smartphone maker by shipments in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to IDC. However, iPhone shipments declined 14.9% year on year.
Stanislav Kogiku | SOPA Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Apple’s latest patent is adding to anticipation that the iPhone maker could be on the cusp of launching a foldable device.

The patent, which was awarded to Apple Tuesday, describes technology that would allow users to touch multiple parts of a device, not just the screen, to carry out functions.

For example, a user could touch the side of a device to control the camera, according to the patent. Apple describes this as a “virtual shutter button.” A user could also slide their finger up and down the side of the device to control the volume.

One of the images included in the patent is a drawing of a foldable phone or tablet that has a wraparound screen.

Apple is yet to introduce a foldable iPhone or any device, unlike competitors such as Samsung. Foldable smartphones allow the user to bend the device to close it and then open it up to reveal a larger screen.

But a number of analyst predictions, and now this patent, are adding to anticipation that the U.S. technology giant could be bringing a foldable device out in the not-too-distant future.

Analysts at UBS said in a note published Tuesday that the patent “could indicate a foldable device is a possibility but not this year.” The analysts said that a foldable smartphone “could be an incremental opportunity for future generation iPhone models.”

“We believe that a foldable iPhone model could lead to an uptick in consumer purchasing and upgrade rate within the smartphone segment,” UBS said in its note.

Analysts at the investment bank said that if a foldable device “compresses the upgrade rate for iPhone” or attracts users switching from Android phones, then iPhone unit growth could surpass its estimates of 238 million devices in Apple’s fiscal year which runs from October 2023 to September 2024.

Still, foldable handsets are just a small portion of the overall market, accounting for just 1.1% of total smartphone shipments in 2022, according to IDC.

Foldable iPad?

Apple usually does not rush to market with a new trend and often waits to see how it plays out. Companies from Samsung to Chinese electronics maker Oppo have launched foldable smartphones, but they are still in their infancy.

Analysts have predicted over the past few months that Apple could have some sort of foldable device in the works however, and it likely won’t be an iPhone.

Market research firm CCS Insight last year predicted that Apple will launch an iPad with a folding screen in 2024.

“Right now it doesn’t make sense for Apple to make a foldable iPhone. We think they will shun that trend and probably dip a toe in the water with a foldable iPad,” Ben Wood, chief of research at CCS Insight, told CNBC in an interview in October.

Adding to that, noted Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said this year that he also expects the company to release a foldable iPad in 2024.

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