Innovative Spirit

Happy 10th Birthday, iPhone! So What's Next?

Based on patent documents, here are eight innovations that could become part of the iPhone of the future

The device that reinvented the phone (Courtesy of Cooper Hewlitt)
smithsonian.com

Ten years ago today, Steve Jobs stood onstage before an admiring crowd at Macworld in San Francisco and announced that “Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” Jobs was unveiling the iPhone, which he described as a combination “revolutionary mobile phone,” “widescreen iPod” and a “breakthrough internet communications device.”   

It would be six months before the first iPhone actually went on sale, and five years before a long list of inventors, including Jobs, were granted U.S. Patent No. D672769 for the design of what was simply referred to as an "Electronic Device."  

But from the beginning, it was clear that Apple had indeed created a game changer, a device that became not just a technological marvel, but also a cultural icon. Two years ago, it was celebrated as such in an exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, titled “Tools Extending Our Reach.”

“Because the iPhone has been such a basic tool in the digital age, it was displayed next to an ancient stone hand tool,” says Cindy Trope, an associate curator at the museum. “It wasn’t the first cell phone, but it really incorporated so many complex functions and was a complex product with so many different technologies—the camera, the microphone, the touch screen, wireless connectivity. It also engendered a lot of user appeal. We looked at the whole design object, not just the functionality, but also the physical experience of holding it and using it.”

The iPhone obviously went through plenty of changes during its first decade, as Apple has remained a company dedicated to constant innovation. In fact, between 2007 and the first week of 2017, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Apple was granted 12,405 U.S. patents, including 2,533 last year alone. (That may sound like a lot, but it's not usual for innovative consumer electronic companies—in recent years, Google and Microsoft have actually filed applications for more patents. A big reason is to protect themselves from future lawsuits.)

Not all were for the iPhone, and most have yet to come to fruition. Many never will.

Apple tries to be careful not to tip its hand, so it’s often a guessing game as to what might be added to the next iPhone model—although websites like Patently Apple and AppleInsider try to closely track what it may be up to.

Here are eight inventions that have been described in Apple patent applications filed or patents granted in the past year. (On average, it takes about 25 months, or just over two years, for a patent to be approved.) One day they may become as much a part of the iPhone legacy as the touchscreen. Or maybe not.

An iPhone That Folds?

Remember flip phones? They ruled the mobile phone world before the iPhone came along and changed everything. So, it’s more than a little ironic that in November, Apple was granted a patent for a mobile device with a hinge or bendable seam that allows it to open and shut like a book.

The patent, for “Flexible Display Devices,” explains how screens with a flexible OLED display could be designed to bend a number of ways. The screens could fold to face each other or bend back-to-back. It also suggests additional hinges could be added that would enable to phone to be folded into thirds. And, it raises the possibility that the folding phone could be designed so that it could easily clip on to clothing.

While foldable screens are harder to break and make the device easier to carry, this would represent a dramatic shift from the iPhone’s iconic, sleek design. Some experts remain dubious that a bendable iPhone is imminent. Said AppleInsider: “Considering iPhone's design progression over nearly ten years, it is unlikely that Apple will release a foldable format smartphone anytime soon.”

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