As the sun sets on the beloved handset, Apple’s product line may shift from its signature iPhones to more smart clothing and furniture instead. That’s because newly unearthed patent applications, coupled with ballooning Apple Watch and AirPods revenue, suggest that the Cupertino-based company increasingly sees its future in wearables.
First let’s look at the patents: On Thursday, the United States Patent and Trade Mark Office published an Apple patent application filed by the company on February 13 of last year titled, “Fabric-Based Items With Electrical Component Arrays.” The documentation details how the tech giant is working to seamlessly intertwine cloth with electrical components to create things like wrist bands, pillowcases, and even wallets that would all come with embedded screens.
It’s not surprising that the company is looking into wearables. Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC on Tuesday that its wearables revenue “is already 50 percent more than iPod was at its peak.” This comes a week after he revised the company’s 2019 revenue projections down, pointing to a slowdown in smartphone sales. That suggested that time is running out for Apple to either figure out its next game-changer or diversify its product line so its less reliant on iPhones.
The filing is particularly interesting because it wrestles specifically with a technique that could be applied to an incredibly wide range of smart products. Take a look at the patent:
“[It] may be a removable external case for electronic equipment, may be a strap, may be a wrist band or headband, may be a removable cover for a device, may be a case or bag that has straps or that has other structures to receive and carry electronic equipment and other items, may be a necklace or arm band, may be a wallet, sleeve, pocket, or other structure into which electronic equipment or other items may be inserted, may be part of a chair, sofa, or other seating (e.g., cushions or other seating structures), may be part of an item of clothing or other wearable item (e.g., a hat, belt, wrist band, headband, etc.), or may be any other suitable fabric-based item.”
In other words, Apple is trying to figure out a way to safely and effectively interweave electrical components — like light-emitting diodes (OLED) — into textile materials. The documentation itself admits that this is a lofty challenge, citing concerns that OLED components could be easily damaged if the fabric is bent or stretched.
The description goes on to suggest a solution to this problem in the form of a 3D-printed circuit in the shape of a chain mesh. Instead of embedding electrical components directly into the fabrics, Apple could layer this electrical netting on top. In theory, this could keep OLEDs from stretching too far apart during use.
“The electrical components may be mounted to a support structure such as a flexible printed circuit. The flexible printed circuit may have a mesh pattern formed from an array of openings…The electrical components may be light-emitting diodes or other electrical devices. Polymer with light-scattering particles or other materials may cover the electrical components. The flexible printed circuit and array of components may be laminated between fabric layers or other layers of material.”
Apple has been granted other, similar patents for smart clothing concepts in the past. On January 1, it was granted a “Smart Fabric” patent that included a design blueprint for how OLEDs could be incorporated in, say, the sleeve of a sweater or right into your office desk.
Sales data indicates that it’s no longer iPhones, it’s the Apple Watch Series 4 and AirPods which present the best opportunities for innovation and growth. These proposed smart fabric concepts could be used to turn iPhones or iPads into wearables you slide on as a wrist band or coat.
It also lets Apple grow and develop new products without having to look to the middle of the market, in other words allowing it to remain a strictly luxury brand. Apple’s retail presence already looks far, far more like a 5th Avenue boutique than an electronics store. Mannequins, adorned with software-enabled smart clothing, would hardly be out of place.