Apple was recently awarded a patent for technology that describes a way whereby Apple may add speakers to a super-thin device. That might not sound very interesting, but it is. In fact, as Apple tries to make devices thinner and thinner, it starts to have to sacrifice on other hardware components. One obvious sacrifice is battery life, as we’ve already seen, but another is audio output. Rumor has it Apple will ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack in its next iPhone, but it may have to bail on traditional speakers, too. The company’s patent says that, as devices get wafer-thin, there’s less area to place good speakers.

“With respect to audio sound, a portable electronic device can utilize at least one or two speakers and one or more microphones provided internal to the housing of the portable electronic device,” Apple explains in its patent. “Unfortunately, given the area constraints imposed on many portable electronic devices, it is increasingly difficult to provide high-quality audio sound output and pickup without hindering the ability to make portable electronic devices smaller and thinner. Consequently, there is a need for improved approaches to provide high-quality audio sound output and/or pickup from portable electronic devices as they get smaller and thinner.”

So Apple decided to come up with a solution, which sounds like it might try to build speakers into other areas of the phone:

The invention pertains to a portable electronic device that provides compact configurations for audio elements. The audio elements can be drivers (e.g., speakers) or receivers (e.g., microphones). In one embodiment, an audio element can be mounted on or coupled to an intermediate structure (e.g., a flexible electrical substrate) having an opening therein to allow audio sound to pass there through. In another embodiment, an audio chamber can be formed to assist in directing audio sound between an opening an outer housing and a flexible electronic substrate to which the audio element is mounted or coupled thereto. In still another embodiment, a barrier, such as a mesh barrier, can be provided in an opening of an outer housing so that undesired foreign substances can be blocked from further entry into the opening in the outer housing.

We may be wrong, but the “flexible electrical substrate” could possibly be part of a display panel – at least considering that flexible films are becoming more and more common, and that Apple has investigated the use of the technology. It might not actually include the screen, but we imagine Apple could try to take advantage of other flat areas of the front panel of the smartphone to create speakers where they otherwise might not exist.

Apple may decide it never needs to use this patent, but it’s at least beginning to think about how speakers will work as its devices get thinner and thinner.