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

Original iPhone
The device that reinvented the phone Courtesy of Cooper Hewlitt

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.”

Augmented Reality Maps

Remember last summer when it seemed like half the world was walking around staring into their phones as they tried to capture imaginary Pokemon Go creatures. It was the moment when augmented reality (AR) went mainstream. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been known to be a big AR fan, and this past November the company finally was granted a patent for what it calls “Augmented Reality Maps.”

What that means is that it’s probably just a matter of time before the iPhone has the capability to display augmented reality imagery over a live video feed. Point your iPhone in any direction and the device would overlay info about that place or object on the screen—such as the names of buildings or points of interest. Those overlays would be continually updated as you move the phone around. If you decide you want to visit a place, you tap on it and a directional map would appear on the screen.

iPhone as Car Keys

It’s been possible for a few years now to start and unlock a car with a smartphone app. But an Apple patent granted last May would significantly increase the amount of control an iPhone could have on a vehicle. Not only would the device give a car owner the ability to unlock and start a car, he or she would be able to do much more.

According to the patent, titled “Accessing A Vehicle Using Portable Devices,” the phone could also “activate a vehicle's audio or audiovisual entertainment system, activate a vehicle's global positioning system (GPS), activate a vehicle's dashboard console, turn on a vehicle's passenger compartment lights, adjust a vehicle's seats, turn on a vehicle's headlights, open a vehicle's sun roof, turn on a vehicle's windshield wipers, activate a vehicle's automatic parking system, activate a vehicle's wireless communication system, and/or the like.

In addition, the device would also enable him or her to create temporary “keys” for other people. But it would be very different from a typical spare key. It can be set to work for only a determined period of time and be used only by the designated person. So, if you want to loan your car to a friend, or maybe a teenage son or daughter, you can specify the hours during which they can drive it.

Disabling Cameras at Concerts

Go to a concert these days and it’s a good bet that many of the people around you are pointing their phones at the stage, hoping to capture a video moment they can share with friends. But that may not be so easy in the future. Last June, Apple was granted a patent for technology that would enable a concert venue or museum to prevent people from using their phones to shoot photos or videos of particular locations.

Basically, a club or arena would be able to use infrared emitters that broadcast a signal that would temporarily disable smartphone cameras. You’d still be able to take pictures of the crowd or your friends, but once you aimed your camera phone at the stage, no dice. The infrared signal—that’s how TV remotes work—would be sent from the emitter on the stage to your phone and turn off that functionality. It similarly could be used for museum exhibits where photography isn’t permitted. 

If this strikes you as concert buzzkill, take heart. There’s no indication at this point that Apple plans to move forward with this feature.  

Sensors on the Side

Not that there are many buttons on the current iPhone, but a patent application Apple filed in December suggests how the ones that are there could go away. It explains how touch sensors could be placed along any side of the phone to replace physical buttons, such as the volume control. The patent application, titled “Electronic Devices with Display and Touch Sensor Structures,” describes a device made largely of glass or sapphire with the front screen actually wrapping around the sides. That’s where touch sensors could be, allowing the user to engage them without having to put their fingers over the image on the front screen.

The application also raises the prospect of adding sensors to the back of the phone, which could be used for game play, scrolling text or turning pages. In fact, for future smartphones, the back of the phone may become the new innovation playground, and the place where brands can distinguish themselves from one other.

Shock Absorbers

At some point, most of us have had the sinking feeling of watching our smartphone free fall to a hard surface below. If we’re lucky, the screen only gets scratched; if not, it shatters. Back in 2015, Apple applied for a patent for a way of minimizing the damage.

Here’s how it would work. As soon as you drop the iPhone, the device’s accelerometer would sense a sudden change in movement. And that would cause mini-shock absorbers on its four corners to pop out. These screen protectors would extend about the screen and reduce its impact on to the surface.

But that’s not all. According to the application, titled “Electronic Device Housing,” the shock absorbers would also be buoyant, meaning that if you have the misfortune to drop your phone into a swimming pool or lake, it would float.

Return of the Stylus

Steve Jobs was no fan of the stylus—the pen-like tool associated with personal digital assistants of the past, such as the Blackberry or Palm Pilot. In fact, during his unveiling of the iPhone 10 years ago, he cracked, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” But it seems increasingly likely that the stylus may be making a comeback in the Apple universe. During an interview in India last May, Apple CEO Tim Cook seems to have dropped a hint of things to come when he commented: “If you’ve ever seen what can be created with that pencil on an iPad or iPhone, it’s really unbelievable.”

Through a series of patent applications last year, the most recent in December, Apple provided more evidence that it is looking to adapt its Apple Pencil to the iPhone. Currently, it can only work with the iPad Pro.

The application notes that sensors would cause a special menu for the Pencil to appear on the iPhone screen as the stylus moves closer to it. The Apple Pencil could also be used to open certain apps, such as iMovie, and the tool would allow users to draw, write text or trace photos on their phone.

Wireless Charging

Early last year, more than one tech pundit predicted that when the iPhone 7 launched, it would be Apple’ first phone that could be charged wirelessly with a docking station. That didn’t happen, but another Apple patent application published by the U.S Patent and Trademark Office last September has revived the speculation.

While the document primarily focused on brushing and polishing techniques for cylindrical and contoured metal surfaces, it also mentions “inductive charging.” In describing how the tools will work, the application includes illustrations of a charging station used to provide current to another device—such as an iPhone.

The setup wouldn’t be totally wireless. The charging station would have to be plugged in, but the phone wouldn’t need to be connected to it, other than sitting on top of the dock. That, for instance, would allow a person to plug a pair of headphones into the port while simultaneously charging a phone.

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