Apple's patent for a buttonless foldable device sounds wild

I know, I know; we've been reporting on rumours of a folding iPhone pretty much since Steve Jobs revealed Apple's first smartphone back in 2007. But, this time there's some intriguing evidence to back it up – a new patent sounds like it could lead to a radical change in the design of phones and other devices.

Samsung's been mocking Apple for years for its tardiness in developing a foldable phone, as if going back to clamshell devices is an inevitable advance. This patent filing, granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office on Tuesday, shows that Apple's at least exploring the option – and that it's still waging war against buttons (for Apple's current lineup, see the best iPhone 14 prices). 

The new patent, describes the concept of electronic devices, including foldable devices, with touch sensitive control areas on their entire surface. Every surface could be a touch input, including the back and the side walls. 

Patent application for foldable iPhone

An image from the Apple patent application shows a foldable device (Image credit: Apple)

The application notes that "It can be challenging to gather touch input from a user and to display images for a user efficiently. For example, when a user supplies touch input to a touch screen display, the user's hand may block images". Apple's potential solution is more places for touch input to, for example, control cameras, volume, brightness. The concept could be applied to a range of devices, but the example images in the application look most like phones, which is where the concept would make most sense.

Patent application for foldable iPhone

(Image credit: Apple)

Touch sensor layers could be "overlapped" by a device’s outer glass panels on every side, including curved sidewalls. The application also mentions "wrapping a display around some or all of device." Touch sensors on the back of a device might sound strange, but Apple suggests they could have "gaming applications". 

For a foldable, the patent states that the same touchability could be achieved with a clamshell design employing an “elastomeric material” allowing the device to bend. Transparent touch sensors would again be present on the device walls, while an " enclosure" would allow the device "to be folded one or more times along one or more fold axes." 

Now, a phone that can be folded more than once and receive touch input on every surface sounds like a radical departure in phone design, and it could be welcomed amid complaints the phones haven't changed in years. I'm not quite sure why we'd want to fold a phone more than once, but I'll go with it for now. The patent also follows the direction that Apple's already been moving in with the iPhone by removing buttons. We've heard plenty of rumours before about plans for an iPhone with haptic buttons instead of real clicky buttons.

Perhaps my main concern would be the strength and durability of construction since this is a device you presumably wouldn't be able to put in iPhone case. Apple mentions both “transparent and opaque materials” comprising plastic, metal, fiber-composite or coatings of clear glass or plastics. Eek! It's worth remembering that patent applications don't necessarily mean that a company has an intention to make the product described. Patents are also filed for marketing reasons or to prevent competition. Watch this space.

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Joseph Foley

Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He writes news and features, updates buying guides and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to accessories and office supplies. A writer and translator, he also works as a project manager at London and Buenos Aires-based design and branding agency Hermana Creatives, where he manages a team of designers, photographers and video editors who specialise in producing photography, video content, graphic design and collaterals for the hospitality sector. He enjoys photography, particularly nature photography, wellness and he dances Argentine tango.