If history repeats itself, then in a few years your new iPhone or iMac will be made entirely out of transparent glass. This is easy to predict, because Apple hardware always mirrors its operating systems, and Apple’s latest OS looks like glass — and Apple has at two previous times in its history made major changes to OS that preceded gadget-hardware design shifts.
First, let’s look at the newborn operating system. Last week Apple’s lead designer Jonathan Ive unveiled iOS 7, a new version of the background software that runs iPhones and iPads filled with translucence. The interface (which hits the market this fall) has already won rave reviews for its stunning simplicity; fonts and icons have been minimized, leaving the main “feel” of layered transparency. System menus are slightly dissolved, showing apps running beneath, and behind everything your background wallpaper shifts as you tilt the phone, creating a parallax effect. Peer into the new iPhone and you feel like you’re looking into the liquid layers of the machine itself.
Such revolutions in OS have always led Apple to new hardware designs. In 2001, Apple launched Mac OS X version 10.0 — a reboot of its computer operating system which ditched the layers of code from the 1990s, and included onscreen window frames that looked like ribbed white plastic. Apple computer designs of the time were being simplified into pure white plastic. Software matched hardware.
Then, in 2003, Apple rolled out Mac OS X “Panther,” where onscreen windows now were surrounded by what looked to be brushed metal. Apple concurrently began shifting all computer hardware designs to aluminum, starting with high-end laptops until in 2007 the lower-end iMac was all metal. Again, software matched hardware.
Now, here comes a new Apple OS that shows layered glass. Apple launched it on its mobile gadgets, the most fiercely competitive space. Will transparent hardware follow? Hm. We know Steve Jobs loved glass; the staircases in high-end Apple stores are entirely translucent, and he demanded that the first iPhone have a scratch-resistant glass screen — rather than the plastic originally used in the iPhone prototype. The new $5 billion Apple headquarters planned for Cupertino will be filled with curved glass. And Apple has patents for curved glass gadgets, including a phone with a wraparound 360-degree screen.
Glass gadgets would set Apple apart from the rising tide of thin-rectangle competitors. A phone with a screen viewable from any angle wouldn’t appear as a thin metal slab — it could look like leaves or grass or clouds or anything. Curved glass would support radical new gadgets. Corning, which manufacturers the tough Gorilla Glass used in iPhones, has created a flexible product called Willow Glass that allows digital displays to bend into nearly any shape, such as a watch, bracelet or necklace. Glass would also support larger products; Philips has created digital windows that let light through with electronic “shades” or “leaves” that appear to block light when you need them. Big or small, round or flat, glass would push digital displays into the future.
There are still technical challenges. Transparent glass would reveal the batteries and electronics that make up the innards of mobile devices. Glass still can scratch, chip or shatter. But dissolving technology into such design nuance that it disappears into the environment completely would certainly be elegant. We hear Apple is into that.