Apple Has Designs on a Curvy, All-Screen iPhone
The drawing on the patent application looks like a previous version of the iPod nano. Apple, however, is dreaming up a flattened oval iPhone that's all screen, thereby changing up the way a user would interact with the device. Facial recognition, 3D capabilities and gesture control could be in the mix as well -- if Apple can incorporate them in user-friendly ways.
03/29/13 5:00 AM PT
Curves, flexibility and an all-glass case may be in the design cards for a future iPhone.
Apple was awarded a patent Thursday from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a consumer electronic product with a flexible display and transparent housing.
The patent also notes that visual content can be displayed anywhere on the wraparound housing.
In its patent application, Apple explains that there is too much wasted space on today's electronic devices.
"Electronic devices have settled into a standard form factor; namely a flat planar form factor with a display on one side and an opaque housing which contains the electrical components covering the rear surface of the device," the application said.
"Unfortunately, this popular form factor leaves the sides and rear surfaces of the device unused or at best configured with buttons and switches with fixed location and functionality. Therefore, there exists a need for an improved form factor for portable electronic devices which allows functionality to extend to more than one surface of the device."
Buying Glass Cutters
According to the drawings accompanying the patent, Apple's device would have a curved shape without any buttons or switches to be snagged on clothing or accidentally pushed in a "pocket dial."
The device would know when to interact with its user through the use of facial recognition technology. Users would control the phone with hand gestures.
In addition, the patent also incorporates multiple transparent displays into the design to create a 3D-like effect.
Rumors of Apple creating a curved iPhone along the lines of the one in the patent have been circulating for some time. Prior to the introduction of what became the iPhone 4S, there were reports that Apple had purchased 200 to 300 glass-cutting machines to make the curved glass to be used for that phone.
If Apple ever bought the machines, it never used them for the 4S or its successor, the iPhone 5, since those handsets had a traditional form factor.
As Comfortable As A Nano
Apple incorporated a curved design into its iPod nano that made the device comfortable to use, so a similar approach could be beneficial to the device, said Carl Howe, research director for the Yankee Group.
"The Nano felt really nice in the hand and was easy to operate with one hand," he told MacNewsWorld.
Since a thumb moves in a three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional arc, the curve follows function as well, Howe said. "There are certain usability advantages to a curved phone."
Expanding the usable display surface of the phone would be a welcome benefit from the design in the Apple patent, noted Michael Morgan, a mobile devices analyst with ABI Research.
"Smartphones today are flat forms for content consumption and communication," he told MacNewsWorld. "The biggest limiter has been the size of the device."
It's important that the handset's display be flexible as well as curved, Morgan said. A flexible phone won't crack when you drop it.
"The phone in this patent looks like a glass cup," he said. "If you drop it, it would shatter."
Flexible phones will start appearing in the market first, Morgan predicted, followed by phones with curved glass displays.
Display makers have been playing with flexible screens as far back as the late 1990s, according to Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at the Enderle Group. The big problem is material fatigue -- they deteriorate quickly with use.
"Flexible displays allow phones to be designed that fit better in your pocket or around your wrist," he told MacNewsWorld.
3D or Not 3D?
Although Apple's patent suggests it may be dabbling in 3D for the iPhone, that may not be such a good idea.
"I'm a 3D skeptic," Howe confessed. "You got to have a reason to bother with it, and I'm not sure there is one. I don't see Apple being the first company to do a 3D phone."
That's especially true since 3D can reduce image quality on a device.
"On a small screen, you can do 3D without glasses pretty easily," Enderle said, "but you give up resolution, and I don't think people are going to give up resolution for 3D."