We had a large gathering over the Easter weekend - large enough in fact that we were able to compare a good number of smartphones, including a Galaxy III, a Galaxy Note 2, one of the edgeless screen Motorola Droids, and the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5. Both of the Samsung users expressed buyer's remorse related specifically to size - they loved their Android, but ultimately wished they hadn't jumped on the larger sizes. The Motorola Droid user was extremely happy with her smartphone - the right size, weight and feel she exclaimed.
Still, the undeniable winner amongst all of us from a pure design sense (leaving the OS out of it) was the iPhone 5. It was unanimous - and this included the happy Moto Droid user - that if we had to choose simply by picking one up and holding it the iPhone 5 is clearly superior to everything else from a design perspective. There is a very clear reason Apple doesn't think that "larger" is a design element.
Make no mistake about it though - Apple is going to deliver the high end versions of both an inexpensive smartphone as well as a large screen device. But the large screen device is not going to be Apple's next generation state of the art. We believe that the four inch form factor and exceedingly light weight of the iPhone 5 will continue to be the dominant direction Apple takes for the cutting edge - and we absolutely believe that Apple is right to do so.
Leaving aside the next generation of iOS, which we've given a good bit of ink to already in terms of what Apple has to do to significantly raise the user experience and software bar, where might Apple go in terms of the hardware design and how the user physically interacts with the next generation iPhone? Several very recent patents offer us some very interesting clues. We note here that patent applications and granted patents don't necessarily mean anything relative to what products end up emerging in the real world, but there are certainly a few very cool things to think about here.
A Real Next Generation iPhone
First, we need to give credit and a tip of the hat to Patently Apple, which has already extracted the most interesting patent drawings from a patent application (serial number 245646) Apple filed in Q3 2011 with the US Patent Office - Let's get right to it:
It is a very interesting design that offers numerous possibilities. First, it is clearly not derivative. It is an entirely different design approach than the current generation iPhones. Second, there will be no physical buttons on it (we'll get to another patent that Apple was awarded last week in reference to this later). Third, don't let the icons fool you. The patent was filed back in 2011 when the icons were still cutting edge. iOS 7 will likely provide an entirely different UI philosophy. Who knows what Jon Ives has up his sleeve?"
Now, let's suppose that the case material is entirely glass - or wraparound glass as Patently Apple refers to it. Perhaps this wraparound glass also includes a display that wraps around the case in its entirety, providing a display that is literally the entire front and back of the iPhone. Conceivably the case can be a single piece of glass, or it may be two pieces of glass sandwiched around a super-thin aluminum shell. That's one option. Alternatively, perhaps in a lower priced model, the top side of it can be curved glass and the back of it might be made of curved ultra-light aluminum. That's a second option.
Next, let's look at the top and bottom of the design - which would be the same for either of the two options we've described above. It reminds us a bit of the original iPod Nano - one of which we once took apart and managed to reassemble. The Nano had a similar shell case with top and bottom inserts as shown here. The Nano wasn't curved as the design here is, but it had a very similar one piece shell with rounded edges.
Next let's consider bendable screen display technology that perhaps can be pre-bent to fit the curved shape of the glass, or might conceivably be rolled up, inserted in the shell and then allowed to unravel to fit snugly against the glass shell in either a top only configuration (for the lower priced model we described) or in a complete and fully wraparound configuration for the full glass display.
According to the Apple patent application, a key advantage of using an AMOLED display screen is that it can be heated and shaped. Once shaped, the AMOLED display still retains its flexibility and can then be temporarily rolled up or flattened out. As the image below suggests, the display can be rolled up to be inserted into the all-glass or glass and aluminum case. Once inserted the screen will then unfold back to the precise shape it was given when heated and can be connected to the internal electronics just as any other display is attached.
This is a true application for bendable displays - it isn't about creating a phone where the case itself and the electronics in it are bendable. Keep in mind as well that the patent pre-dates the introduction of the new Lightening connector, which creates more flexibility than the original patent application may otherwise display.
The current buttons on this next generation iPhone can be etched into the glass itself, possibly representing a location where a tap or gesture on the screen might bring up the related control (e.g. volume up or down) as a virtual control. The home button might work in a similar manner or perhaps iOS 7 will deliver a different concept on the home button. We're not convinced Apple will want to etch anything, however, as that is an unsophisticated design approach. For now, we'll leave it to the imagination how these controls might manifest themselves physically.
No Touch, No Look
While we're in the process of imaging these virtual controls, here is another thing to consider. On March 26, 2013, Apple was awarded a new patent, US Patent 8,407,623 that implements multi-touch controls in the case where a mobile device display isn’t actively displaying anything. That is one possibility. Perhaps a circular touch gesture on the screen might be instantly interpreted as the user wants to raise or lower the volume - no etching required on the glass - it can all be handled in a much more elegant and virtual manner.
The patent also specifically notes that the display doesn’t have to be off for these gesture-based commands to work. Perhaps iOS 7 will offer us a different paradigm as well for how we view and interact with our collections of apps. Further, these new control options may offer new options for how we interact with our applications when they are running. The patent also describes a method for turning the no-look touch capability on or off.
It doesn't end there though. How about an Apple smart watch that is designed along the curved glass and display lines described above for the next generation iPhone, tethered to the iPhone via Bluetooth and controlling the iPhone through these same gestures that are originated on the iWatch screen. Perhaps we'll see two types of iWatches - those that support iOS 6 and earlier devices, and the premium devices that will support iOS 7.
Finally, since the patent especially applies to displays that are also turned off, battery life will be extended as part of the process, so that Apple doesn't have to provide larger batteries on either the iPhone or iWatch. And "next, next generation" devices may end up making use of new bendable battery technologies based on graphene.
There is of course no reason to believe that the above will be anything that Apple turns into a real product. Or it may be that the manufacturing capabilities aren't yet available. Or perhaps it is all real. True, there are no case manufacturers spilling the beans on how such a device might even support a case. Not that we would want a case on such a phone - it would simply destroy the elegance of the design.
Real or not, the point of this exercise however, is to provide a glimpse of some possibilities. Anyone who thinks that smartphone design has reached a natural end point to its evolution is sorely mistaken. And anyone who thinks that a next generation iPhone needs to be an oversized monstrosity is simply foolish. A next generation iPhone will generate enormous demand - a saturated smartphone market merely means that all those high end devices that now fill the market segment will move down the ladder.
Perhaps Apple CEO Tim Cook will introduce those two market segment filling phones in July - the low end model and the large screen model…and then perhaps he'll turn to the audience and say, "Oh, one more thing…"
Readers interested in more details and additional next generation iPhone drawings will find them at Patently Apple.
Edited by Brooke Neuman