Apple's iPhone 6 may have a bendy, flexible display and body, if recent tech innovations and patent activity are any indicator. Imagine that: you'd be able to fold it up and pop it in your pocket, and dropping it would be far less of a worry. But is this really likely?
Flexible iPhone 6: patent clues
After the iPhone 5's major physical overhaul of the iPhone 4S - going for a longer display and slimmer, lighter body - many experts reckon the iPhone 6 will see more incremental external upgrades. But Apple watchers have spotted a few clues pointing to something a lot more radical: a body that bends back on itself like a magazine.
The first port of call when considering a potential Apple innovation is to look at what the company has patented. And it's clearly exploring legal safeguards for a flexible design. As we reported back in September, Apple has applied for a patent for 'Electronic Devices With Flexible Displays'.
"Electronic devices may be provided with concave displays or convex displays formed from one or more flexible layers including a flexible display layer," Apple's patent abstract explains. "Portions of the flexible display may be used as speaker membranes for display based speaker structures."
Are we convinced yet? Apple routinely patents approaches and designs that it never uses, so this isn't exactly cast-iron. These legal manoeuvrings make it clear that flexible displays are on Apple's radar somewhere, but who knows where they'll turn up - if at all.
Flexible iPhone 6: rival activity
Samsung has shown off a prototype of a flexible smartphone called the Galaxy Skin, and the Wall Street Journal reports that it's now in the final stage of development, with launch some time in the first half of 2013.
Apple used to hate the idea of reacting to its rivals, always setting the tone with either genuine innovation or perfectionist, category-defining products. But with the iPad mini, for the first time in years Apple seemed to be playing catchup, hooking into the mini-tablet trend popularised by Samsung, Google and Amazon.
Does Apple want to get caught on the back foot again? This is a company that lives and dies by its reputation for innovation and creativity. The Galaxy Skin was showcased more than year ago, and the patent activity above showed that Apple has at the very least explored the idea of a flexible display: can an iSkin be far behind?
Flexible iPhone 6: tech developments
Flexible displays have been on the tech menu for years, with numerous companies coming up with their own take on the concept. But they've so far failed to make the leap from prototype to commercial product.
A couple of recent developments, however, make that flexible iPhone 6 dream seem a little closer to reality. The first is the organic radical battery, a 0.3mm-thick unit by NEC that's designed primarily for its environmental credentials (it contains no heavy metals, meaning safe disposal is much simpler) but is also thin – and bendy.
The more interesting innovation that could help the flexible iPhone 6 to be reality is a new form of cut-price digital display. As Venturebeat reports, researchers have come up with a type of electronic paper with more reflectivity and faster image switching than current versions. And because it's made of plastic, it's rollable.
Flexible iPhone 6: Final verdict
We're not going to lie to you: it's a long shot. As we mentioned above, the usual Apple pattern would suggest an incremental update (at least externally) to the iPhone 6, and a flexible body would be a wildly unpredictable step. Not to mention a departure from the less-is-more, minimalist design ethic that Jony Ive has delighted us with for so long. It feels like it would be a gimmick.
But on the other hand, flexible displays are getting to the point where they're almost normal - and it would only take one major launch to plonk them right in the mainstream. If Samsung's Galaxy Skin makes waves early next year, and customers get used to the idea (just like customers got used to the idea of 10in screens, instead of having to 'sandpaper down their fingertips' like Steve Jobs reckoned), then who knows. Apple can't afford to be behind the curve for long.
One final thought: given its natural analogue of the newspaper or magazine, a better place for a flexible display might be in Apple's follow-up to the iPad mini. A flexible iPad mini 2 would be the perfect reading device: portable, user-friendly, beautifully designed.