Patent Filings Suggest Way More Smartphones That Come With a Flexible Screen

The flip phones of the future.

samsung foldable phone concept

Flip phones are a remnant of smartphone history that harks back to a time when the iPhone was still a blip inside the mind of Steve Jobs. But these nostalgic handsets might make a triumphant comeback in the near future.

Multiple tech companies are trying to bring foldable phones to market, including Apple, Samsung, LG, and ZTE. On Tuesday, we got a glimpse at the technology Apple will use to make future iPhones foldable.

Indeed, the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office just granted the Cupertino-based company a new series of patents that seem geared toward enabling foldable iPhones. According to a report by Apple Patently, it details that the device would make use of a multi-layer display in combination with a lubrication system to make sure the screen doesn’t crack.

The images for this potential handset mirror mockups put forward by the likes of Samsung and LG. Unlike their clamshell predecessors, these devices have been conceptualized to have a bendable OLED display that would allow users to flip them open like a small notebook.

This positions flexible screens as a potential smartphone market trend a few years down the line.

Foldable Smartphones: What Apple Is Cooking Up

This most recent Apple filing is not the first sign that the company is developing foldable iPhones. A Korean patent for a flexible display was discovered as early as 2014.

apple patent foldable smartphone iphone
Conceptual blueprints from an Apple patent reveal how a foldable iPhone might look like.

In July, Apple was granted a patent for a hinge mechanism that would let the future smartphone bend around an axis, sort of like the binding for a book.

Tuesday’s filing elaborated on approximately how this would work.

An electronic device, comprising: a housing that bends about a bend axis; a display in the housing that overlaps the bend axis and bends as the housing bends about the bend axis, wherein the display includes display layers separated by at least one layer that allows the display layers to slip past each other as the display bends about the bend axis.

foldable smartphone technology
Apple's proposed advanced lubrication system for future foldable smartphones.

This proposed technique will likely make use of an “advanced lubrication system” patented by Apple in 2017. This could potentially allow for layers of OLED display to slip past each other without any damage occurring.

But don’t expect this tech to make an appearance during the September 12 iPhone keynote. It’ll likely be a few more years before Apple takes this from concept to reality.

Samsung Foldable Smartphone May Be Announced This Year

The Korean smartphone giant has been teasing foldable smartphones since 2012 and now it might actually launch something this year.

In an interview with CNBC, DJ Koh the CEO of Samsung’s mobile division hinted that the company might be announcing something as early as this year. He said that while the device has proven “complicated” to develop it is “nearly concluded,” so could expect to hear something during the Samsung Developer Conference in November.

The Wall Street Journal reported the device will include 7-inch display that would fold in half, with the outside of the phone acting as a smaller screen to present information at a glance.

LG Foldable Smartphone Might Be More Nostalgic

LG has been known to tout some eye-watering, flexible displays. It showed off a 77-inch OLED transparent screen at the Society for Information Display Trade Show in May and the concept for a portable 65-inch TV at CES 2018 that could be rolled up like a newspaper. And now it will be putting this tech to use in its smartphone department.

LG foldable smartphone
An LG patent reveals that the company wants its future foldable smartphone to fold horizontally. 

According to a patent filing spotted by LetsGoDigital in June, the company is working on a foldable phone that will be reminiscent of the flip phones of yesteryear.

Instead of folding vertically like its competitors, this device would bend horizontally giving it the appearance of a wallet. The majority of the patent explains the hinge device that would allow the phone to fold and the magnets that would be used to keep it shut.

ZTE Foldable Smartphone Is Already on the MArket

If you’re particularly keen to experience foldable smartphones firsthand, you might want to look to the Chinese telecom company ZTE. Though the reviews have been lukewarm at best, it is the first major foldable smartphone to hit the market.

ZTE Axon M foldable smartphone
Chinese smartphone maker ZTE already has already released a foldable smartphone...sort of.

The ZTE Axon M was released in November 2017 for $725 and it basically attached two smartphones with a hinge. Unlike all the other foldable phone concepts, this screen doesn’t actually fold but just gives you access to two screens that have been tied together.

Some reviews complained that the central hinge undermined a feature that allowed users to run one app in both screens. This was especially problematic when a video is displayed on both screens.

Of course, sometimes it pays to be late to the party if it means you have the opportunity to roll out a better product. And if you’ve been wanting to throw it back to flip phones while keeping all of the amenities of a smartphone, the future looks bright.