I know I know; we’ve been reporting rumors of a foldable iPhone pretty much since Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s first smartphone back in 2007. But this time, there’s some exciting evidence to back it up—a new patent sounds like it could lead to a radical change in the design of phones and other devices.
Samsung has mocked Apple for years for its lateness in developing a foldable phone, as if going back to clamshell devices is an inevitable progression. This patent application, filed by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, shows that Apple is at least exploring the option — and that it’s still waging war on buttons (for Apple’s current lineup, see the best iPhone 14 prices).
The new patent (opens in a new tab), describes the concept of electronic devices, including foldable devices, with full-surface touch-sensitive control areas. Every surface can be a touch input, including the back and side walls.
The application notes that “Collecting touch input from a user and displaying images to a user efficiently can be challenging. For example, when a user provides touch input to a touchscreen, the user’s hand may block images”. Apple’s potential solution is more places for touch input to control cameras, volume, brightness, for example. The concept can be used on a variety of devices, but the example images in the application look the most like phones, and that’s where the concept makes the most sense.
Touch sensor layers can be “overlapped” by a device’s outer glass panels on each side, including curved sidewalls. The application also mentions “wrapping a screen around some or all of the device.” Touch sensors on the back of a device may sound strange, but Apple suggests they could have “gaming applications.”
For a foldable, the patent says the same touch capability can be achieved with a clamshell design that uses an “elastomeric material” that allows the device to bend. Transparent touch sensors will again be present on the device’s walls, while an “encapsulation” will allow the device to be “folded one or more times along one or more fold axes.”
Now, a phone that can be folded more than once and receives touch input on any surface sounds like a radical departure in phone design, and it could be welcomed amid complaints that phones haven’t changed in years. I’m not entirely sure why we’d want to merge a phone more than once, but I’ll go ahead with it for now. The patent also follows the direction that Apple has already moved in with the iPhone by removing buttons. We’ve heard plenty of rumors before about plans for an iPhone with haptic buttons instead of real click buttons.
Perhaps my biggest concern would be the strength and durability of the build since this is a device you probably wouldn’t be able to put in your iPhone case. Apple mentions both “transparent and opaque materials” that consist of plastic, metal, fiber composite, or coatings of clear glass or plastic. Eek! It is worth remembering that patent applications do not necessarily mean that a company has an intention to make the described product. Patents are also filed for marketing reasons or to prevent competition. Watch this space.