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Could Apple's Next iPhone Be Foldable?

Apple could be one step closer to unveiling an iPhone 8 with a foldable design, if a new patent is any indication. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on Tuesday published a patent awarded to Apple that describes a foldable iPhone concept.

Credit: USPTO

(Image credit: USPTO)

The smartphone would use carbon nanotubes to allow users to fold the smartphone like a clamshell while still ensuring the safety of its screen. Internal components would ostensibly be designed to facilitate the foldable design.

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Since its release in 2007, the iPhone has come with a rigid design that lets users tap around the touchscreen but doesn’t actually fold. With each iteration, new iPhones have come with the same basic design, even as Apple has made them thinner and boosted their screen sizes.

Similarly, Apple’s competitors in the smartphone market, including Samsung, LG, and others, have all clung to a smartphone design that eschews foldability.

When feature phones were all the rage before the iPhone launched, flip phones were commonplace. Their clamshell design made them easy to fit into a pocket and protect the screen from an accidental spill. While the iPhone was by no means the first handset to popularize today’s familiar smartphone design, it arguably put the nail in the flip phone’s coffin.

In recent years, however, handset makers, including Apple, have been eyeing ways to reinvent smartphone designs and they’ve nearly all come to the conclusion that a foldable screen could prove appealing.

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Earlier this year, for instance,Samsung was said to be working on two bendable smartphones that could find their way to store shelves as early as 2017. Samsung’s technology relies upon organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED, screens that afford manufacturers the bendability and flexibility foldable screens require. It’s possible, a Bloomberg report said at the time, that Samsung’s foldable handsets could be unveiled at Mobile World Congress in February.

In June, Lenovo revealed its plans for a bendable smartphone at its Lenovo Tech World keynote. Our very own Avram Piltch and Philip Michaels took both the smartphone and foldable tablet unveiled at the show for a spin and said they were impressed by both devices. However, Lenovo wouldn’t say when the devices might find their way to store shelves.

Whether Apple could get a bendable device to customers before its competitors is unknown. Apple needs high yield rates on smartphone components to satisfy demand, and any new technology can be difficult to get up to snuff.

Still, rumors are running rampant that Apple is planning a major iPhone refresh next year to celebrate its smartphone’s 10th anniversary. Among the rumors, Apple is said to be planning an OLED-based display that can curve.

Is a foldable iPhone, then, too far behind?