Apple's curved glass patent and the shape of iOS apps to come

Shane Schick

Stop dreaming about a curved glass iPhone. Just stop. As much as Apple's latest patent may tempt developers otherwise, that's not the thing they should be focused on.

Instead, reports that Apple has created a system for curved touch-sensitive glass should be a catalyst for exploring the kinds of app experiences that would benefit from curved glass. The hardware, to some extent, is the secondary piece. Although probably no one but Jony Ive knows anything for certain, it may not matter how big or small such screens may be, or whether they will first manifest themselves on an iPhone, an iPad or something else altogether. If Apple is really investing in this kind of intellectual property, it is sending a message to developers that app users will soon be moving beyond tapping, pinching and zooming as an input paradigm. You can either plan for that shift now or race to catch up once the first curved glass products are released.

For example, TechCrunch made an interesting note on the alleged technology that bears repeating: "The patent includes a method for a screen with variations in the curvature of the surface, too. Specifically, it lays out what looks like a series of bubbles, which you could see used as a means for creating a raised pattern over a software keyboard, for instance. This could be handy in creating touch-sensitive button interfaces on things like displays for controlling things like brightness and volume, or for adding more obvious input methods to something like a touch mouse without swaying from the all-touch design."

It could also mean a highly flexible set of controls for mobile games or a more fluid means to navigate through in-app purchases or the functions of an app. If the curved glass aligns with the natural slope of a relaxed hand, it may provide a comfortable way to authenticate users' identities for apps with biometric sign-on. Some of these things sound a little out there in 2013, but I doubt they will a year from now.

Pinching and zooming helped redefine how users interact with software. Curved glass may do something similar. 

Apple's patent also reportedly works to create a more reliable connection between where a human finger rests on a screen and where icons or buttons seem to appear. In other words, if you sometimes have to jab at the screen two or three times before it works, or if the wrong feature gets activated, curved glass based on Apple's patent would be an improvement.

This suggests, to me at least, that Apple's future differentiator will be machines that feel a little less like machines. This is a highly worthy design goal not just for a hardware manufacturer, but also the developers who will ultimately bring the greatest value to Apple's devices. How can--and should--this change the way the next generation of apps and mobile games are created? It may take a while before Apple throws the industry another curve, but ignoring the possibilities for the engagement this patent could offer is just warped. --Shane