Apple is expected to release its new iPhone 7 next month, but it just gave consumers some very good reasons to wait until 2017 for the 10th anniversary iPhone.
Next year’s iPhone 8 will have a damage-resistant glass face on one or both edges of the handset and replace physical buttons with digital ones that vary depending on which features in use, according to an Apple patent released to the public on Tuesday. “Edge displays may alternatively function as virtual buttons, virtual switches, or informational displays that are supplemental to front side displays,” as it states in the patent description.
The innovations in Apple's patent go beyond the curved screen and virtual side buttons of the Samsung Galaxy Edge, making the touch sensitive virtual side-display buttons interactive. And the patent illustrations suggest that if the phone is playing music, the sidewall screen would display track information; if the camera function is activated, the sidewall would display photo options.
These sort of technological leaps would seem to be a necessity for Apple, which is confronting weaker demand and stiffer competition from its top rival Samsung and China’s Huawei Technology. The company's 13-year streak of consecutive quarterly growth ended in March, due largely to flagging iPhone sales, and its third quarter revenue continued this trend, with a 15-percent decline. And though the iPhone 7 will give a boost to Apple’s holiday sales, the handset is basically serving as a bridge to next year’s expected iPhone overhaul. There is speculation those changes could go beyond what's shown in the patent and possibly result in an "all-glass" model in which every face is interactive.
A source in Taiwan familiar with Apple’s supply chain said Hon Hai Precision Industry (aka Foxconn), Apple’s primary supplier, is developing a wrap-around glass smartphone case, which fuels the rumors that Apple is considering significant changes to its current flat, front-facing damage-resistant glass display.
"Foxconn has been trying glass chassis since last year," the source told Nikkei Asian Review.
Foxconn’s all-glass chassis may or may not be part of this 10th anniversary iPhone reset, but regardless other innovations should be. Earlier this year, Gorilla Glass-maker Corning Inc. announced it had developed a way to print high-resolution images directly onto the smooth surface of its damage-resistant sheet glass. This would give Apple the ability, as its sidewall-display patent describes, to use “printed or painted masks” to distinguish sidewall display icons. For example, the current volume-control buttons could be replaced by touch-screen buttons and a printed layer on the glass could visually separate them from the virtual buttons that shift as users switch between different iPhone functions.
In a sense, whether the iPhone gets the “all-glass” upgrade or merely a raft of new features on its 10th birthday may not matter — the buzz may be enough to make consumers hang on to their current phones until they see what Apple has in store.