Apple patents foldable iPhone featuring a 'self-healing screen'

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(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

If a new patent Apple recently rewarded is any indication, the foldable market could heat up in a big way.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has awarded Apple a patent for a device that comes with a foldable display and a "self-healing display" that would use heat from a range of sources, including light, current and external heat that would allow for the display's surface to return to form. The patent, which was earlier reported on by Patently Apple, would also come with a layer at the top of its screen that would heal on its own.

While Apple didn't say exactly how the patent would work in practice, it undoubtedly prompts questions about Apple's intentions in the mobile space after years of rumors suggesting it's been working on a foldable iPhone to compete in the broader foldable market against Samsung and Google. According to some rumors, it's also possible that Apple could offer a foldable iPad and eschew a foldable iPhone altogether.

Either way, offering a foldable would be a first for Apple, which has been stubbornly stuck to flat-paneled phones since the iPhone's launch nearly 20 years ago. However, the foldable market is still relatively slow, partly due to the small number of competitors in the space. Apple joining the fray could jumpstart the industry and put its competitors to the test.

That said, adding a self-healing display to the device could ultimately prove to be the most critical factor in a future foldable iPhone's success. While foldables have been generally well-received and reviewed, they tend to suffer from screen issues over time after extended use. A feature allowing them to heal on their own would be a significant addition to Apple's handsets and potentially help the company stake a claim to the market at launch.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, there are some things to remember. For one, a patent award doesn't mean that the technology will ever make its way to a device. Like any major tech company, Apple files for patents all the time, and many of its patents never find their way to its hardware.

Additionally, the patent itself is exceptionally vague. The way the screen could be heated included almost every imaginable option. Apple said the self-healing layer would be made of "polymer or any desired material having self-healing properties." Moreover, the company said it could "extend across the entire exterior surface of the display cover" or perhaps sit on a portion of the screen.

So, while it's fun to speculate on what Apple could be thinking about foldable devices, don't bank on the technology outlined in the patent coming to a future handset.

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Don Reisinger is CEO and founder of D2 Tech Agency. A communications strategist, consultant, and copywriter, Don has also written for many leading technology and business publications including CNET, Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, Forbes, Computerworld, Digital Trends, TechCrunch and Slashgear. He has also written for Tom's Guide for many years, contributing hundreds of articles on everything from phones to games to streaming and smart home.