Wednesday , October 28 2020

The tech giant may finally be entering the foldable fray.

Does This Apple Patent Mean What We Think It Means?

Does Apple have a foldable phone in the works? The invention described in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filing, granted to Apple on February 4, shows an electronic device with a flexible display and a novel hinge system that would ensure the screen doesn’t crease, and that there’s no gap in the spine of the device when closed.

Because the patent doesn’t explicitly state what kind of device is being described, it’s unclear if the aim is foldable iPhones or iPads. But based on the recent trend in foldables that Samsung ushered in, it’s most likely a smartphone concept.

In the invention description, Apple describes a novel hinge mechanism that could potentially set an Apple foldable apart from the rest of the pack. The hinge ensures “adequate separation between first and second portions of the housing when the housing is bent,” according to the patent. That basically means the two flat portions of the device will fold together with a hinge that keeps them from touching, while bending the display as little as possible to prevent creasing.

The patent also shows two extendable flaps that open when the device is opened and in an unbent state. These moveable flaps extend parallel to the spine of the device, supporting the display while it’s flat. They retract when the device folds, leaving “room for a bent portion of the display along the bend axis.” So there won’t be a terribly awkward gap in the spine of the device when it’s folded, as is the case with the Huawei Mate X.

Intently focusing on the hinge is no mistake, lest we should forget the complete debacle of the first Samsung Galaxy Fold, with a plastic cover that looked like a protective film holding the entire device together. When media reviewers peeled off the plastic covering from the $2,000 device, calamity ensued. This video report from the Wall Street Journal, for example, showcased the ridiculousness of it all:

Hinges have been a sore subject in the electronics industry since foldables first hit the scene. For its part, the Samsung Galaxy Fold has a pretty noticeable crease in the middle when you unfold the phone, and so does the Royale Flexpai, which The Verge called “charmingly awful” after the Consumer Electronics Show in 2019. Now it looks like the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip is taking a new hinge approach.

This isn’t Apple’s first tango with foldable patents. One of the most interesting pieces of evidence is a patent application for a foldable battery. Per that filing, which dates back to 2017, the battery cells will be put together in a configuration that allows the entire battery to be flexible, integrating effortlessly into the display. You can also see graphite padding to help keep heat at bay between the screen and battery.

A caveat with all patents, as we’ve warned in the past, is that the company may not have any intention of actually using its newly acquired intellectual property. There are plenty of reasons why Apple may have pursued this patent, outside the possibility of a new iPhone with a folding hinge.

For one, the company may want to ensure that other firms can’t take the same approach to a foldable it’s already thinking about. Think about it like insurance for the future: When the company wants to pursue the foldable, it’s already sitting on a pile of patents that protect that future work. Or Apple may want to sell off these ideas to other manufacturers working on foldables.

What we do know: Apple tends to perfect the concepts that other smartphone manufacturers first introduce. Apple wasn’t the first to use a pull-down notification bar— that was software developed by Android—but the design is far sleeker now that iOS does support that notification shelf. Apple wasn’t the first to introduce a fingerprint scanner, remove the home button, or even make larger-than-life displays, but in every case, the company has dominated the execution.

Whatever happens, we hope Apple actually does pursue a foldable iPhone, so that at least one company gets it right.

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