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Is Apple Working on Clam-shell iPhones and iPads?


Rumors are circulating about a new design feature in the upcoming iPhone 5: An edge-to-edge screen.
The scuttlebutt originated a couple of months ago with a post on iDealsChina, and has been re-enforced by the appearance of a case for such a design on AliBaba, a disreputable online clearinghouse for buying cheap crap from China.
It all sounds pretty shady, but these kinds of sources predicted other Apple products in the past. Even more compelling is that the Wall Street Journal claims a source that has seen a prototype of such a design.
The rumor is either true or false. Who knows? Regardless, an edge-to-edge screen makes sense. If it’s possible to engineer, it’s likely to be built.
Here’s why: There is a fundamental tension in mobile design between minimum case size and maximum screen real estate. For the overall size of the phone or tablet: the smaller, the better. For the size of the screen: the bigger, the better.
Something’s gotta give.
How can the makers of mobile devices keep shrinking handsets while growing screens? The edge-to-edge screen idea is where shrinking devices and growing screens max out. So what comes after that?
I think we’re going to see a new generation of clam-shell multi-touch devices. And I think we’re likely to see them first from Apple.
The most compelling vision for such devices came from Nicholas Negroponte’s One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative. The organization’s XO-2 concept was due in 2010. The project is either dead or late.
Either way, the concept is brilliant — and perfect for the future of Apple’s iOS. The XO-2 concept is a clam-shell design like a laptop. But on the bottom half, the device has another screen instead of a keyboard and touchpad.
In “laptop mode,” the bottom screen is a touch-screen keyboard. In “tablet mode,” both screens function as one large screen. In “book mode,” each half is a page for reading e-books. In “two-person” mode, one screen is oriented for one user, and the other for another user sitting on the opposite side of the device.
The only problem with the XO-2 concept as a consumer device is that in “tablet mode,” the two screens are too far apart to be used as a single screen. But if Apple has figured out how to bring functional screen real estate right to the edge of a device, then they’ve solved the two-screen tablet problem.
That would enable an iPhone the same size as the current model, but that opens like a book, snaps flat and is usable with twice the screen real estate. Ditto for a new iPad.
Another possibility would be an iPad with the same screen real-estate as the current model, but one that folds in half and fits in a pocket.
If that sounds farfetched, consider that Sony has announced a form-factor just like that: a two-screen Android tablet called the S2 that opens flat. The fatal flaw of the S2 is that the screens don’t touch — there’s about a half inch of plastic between the screens. Still, they function as one, and Sony will be shipping this device later in the year.
Yet a third possibility is that Apple could roll out a hybrid device that offers the features of both iOS and MacBook. Imagine a MacBook Air laptop where the bottom of the device were a screen-based keyboard and touchpad rather than physical ones. Snap it flat and the interface becomes a multi-touch device like the iPad, but with a massive screen.
So I have two questions for you iPhone and iPad fans. First, do you think Apple would do such a thing? Is a clam-shell multi-touch device sufficiently minimalist and elegant for Apple?
More importantly, would you tolerate a seam down the middle of your screen if the payoff was twice the screen real estate?
My guess is the answers are yes and yes. I think we’re going to see clam-shell devices out of Apple some time next year. And I think we’re going to like them.
If you disagree with this direction, you would have to accept one of the following three possibilities: 1); iOS devices will stop shrinking; 2) iOS screens will stop growing; or 3) Apple will invent some other way to continue existing trends toward shrinking devices and growing screens.
These three directions plus the clam-shell option are the only four possibilities. My prediction is the clam-shell direction. What’s yours?
(Picture courtesy OLPC)