Yesterday the internet was awash with claims that as a result of a new patent awarded to Apple, the next iPhone will be transparent. I can only guess that these claims were made by people who just skimmed the patent before writing hyperbolic headlines.
I actually took the time to read the patent, and I'm here to say with 100 percent confidence that the next iPhone won't be transparent.
As with most patents, number 9,543,364 -- "Electronic devices having displays with openings" -- is pretty long winded, but a few key excerpts should give you the gist of it. The abstract is a good place to start:
"An electronic device may have a display. The display may have an active region in which display pixels are used to display images. The display may have one or more openings and may be mounted in a housing associated with the electronic device. An electronic component may be mounted in alignment with the openings in the display. The electronic component may include a camera, a light sensor, a light-based proximity sensor, status indicator lights, a light-based touch sensor array, a secondary display that has display pixels that may be viewed through the openings, antenna structures, a speaker, a microphone, or other acoustic, electromagnetic, or light-based component. One or more openings in the display may form a window through which a user of the device may view an external object. Display pixels in the window region may be used in forming a heads-up display."
What we have described here is a display, but unlike a regular display, this one features an array of tiny holes. Underneath those holes would be fitted an array of components, such as a camera or a speaker, or even tiny LEDs that themselves would combine with the other holes to form a secondary display of sorts.
Why might you want to hide components under the display? Apple clarifies this:
"In many device configurations such as those in which displays occupy large portions of a device, it can be challenging to accommodate device components within the device. For example, a display may present an obstacle to the installation and operation of device components. Unless care is taken, a designer may be forced to make aesthetically unappealing design choices or may need to install device components using awkward or bulky arrangements."
So it comes down to aesthetics and the ability to remove the screen bezel by embedding the components that are currently in the bezel -- specifically light sensors, the front-facing camera, and the earpiece speaker -- directly into the display.
The same technology might also allow the Touch ID sensor to be hidden under the display, freeing up the need for the iPhone to have a top and bottom bezel altogether, and allowing for a larger display.
And yes, the patent does say that these holes could allow users to look through the display via a window on the back of the device. But to extrapolate this into a "transparent iPhone" is wildly inaccurate.
In fact, what we have here is not a see-through iPhone, but the technology that might allow Apple to equip the smartphone with augmented reality (AR) technology (although in the patent Apple doesn't say this, instead only going as far as suggesting it might be used for a heads-up display).
It's also important to realize that big companies such as Apple patent -- or at least file patent applications for -- a lot of stuff, most of which never makes it into a product. Just because it's in a patent doesn't mean that the technology is anywhere close to being ready for primetime, or even possible given current technology.