The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office today published an Apple patent application (via AppleInsider) covering an idea for flexible headphone connectors to avoid plug breakage and accidental equipment damage – a common complaint of many users. The patent application, which was first filed back in June 2011 and lists Albert Golko, an iPhone and iPad product development engineering manager at Apple, as its inventor, describes a system whereby:
…a portion or all of the plug connector may comprise a flexible material that allows the connector to bend with respect to an insertion axis and prevent the connector from breaking when inserted or extracted improperly.
The patent describes an audio connector (i.e. a standard 3.5 mm headphone jack) that is manufactured from a flexible material that allows it to bend slightly during use. The audio connectors currently in use on most devices are inflexible and offer no strain relief, meaning that any sudden force to the headphone jack risks damaging the port, which often warrants an expensive repair.
A further addition to the patent is a certain level of flexibility along the connector's length, which allows for more strain in areas that are prone to breakage, such as the tip or base of the plug. Many smartphone users are accustomed to wrapping headphones around the device, which causes an enormous amount of strain to the base of the plug. It is envisioned that Apple's patent will help reduce this slightly by providing more relief to both the headphone jack and the connector.
Although the intentions of the patent application are as of yet unclear, Apple has in the past expressed interest in improving and shrinking headphone plugs and jacks. A patent application published in 2010 outlined a headphone jack design using pogo pins rather than cantilevered metal strips for electrical contacts within the jack, a design which could allow for thinner headphone jacks. Existing audio connectors, both in the standard 3.5 mm and smaller 2.5 mm sizes, remain limiting factors in making smartphones and other devices smaller and thinner, but Apple's work toward thinner jacks and more flexible plugs could help the company achieve smaller and thinner device designs in the future.