A New Finishing Touch
The iPhone has a fierce magnetic attraction for design types, ignoring the millions of sales and huge revenue generation. As an icon, it is up there with Ferrari, Dyson, Renzo Piano architecture and Syd Meads futurism. It also makes phone calls, who knew!
With the Samsung Galaxy SIII (to be unveiled soon) likely to feature a ceramic surface, the move for high-end smartphones is now firmly into the exotic. The iPhone has changed from plastic to metal and glass, it has tapered, then rounded and squared out, in its brief life. What next for the diminutive device?
Certain factors dictate the basics of its shape, but with endless budget and a reputation to uphold, Sir Jony Ive and his laboratory elves will be looking to do something different for the next model to keep iPhone firmly on top of the pile and a "must have" icon rather than just a "could have" gadget.
Cooking With Ceramics
Keeping in mind Ive's maxim, "it's very easy to be different, but difficult to be better," what will the company turn to as it strives to reach new heights? The use of ceramics has been growing rapidly over recent decades, from kitchen knives to ball bearings and body armor, it is getting everywhere due to its light weight and greater resistance to wear.
While it has a reputation as a brittle substance, advances in construction and coatings are likely to have overcome this and silicon nitride ceramics are claimed to be light and easy to hold, something of an advantage over those slippery shiny surfaces.
Melting With Metal
Liquid metal is a magical secretive alloy, word is that it includes a range of metals including zirconium, titanium, nickel, and copper (that might not go down well with the environmental lobby). However, Apple has patents in the technology and a commercial arrangement with LiquidMetal Technologies, the company spun to sell CalTech's original invention.
The resulting alloy is described as thin, light and highly resistant to external impacts, being harder than titanium. Since Samsung is going with ceramics, this could be Apple's way of retaining a unique design feature and seems the favorite material for the new iPhone. A unibody design is something that more phone makers are using and will help reduce costs. Liquidmetal can be molded into such a structure. It can also handle heat better than traditional metals, key as Apple tries to cram ever faster components inside.
Bouncing Off the Glass
The final element of the phone's exterior is the glass and screen. While we might be a few years away from the metallic glass created at the University of Berkelely, Apple is looking at advances from the likes of Corning (who showed off its latest wares in China last month) and others to produce, a stronger, lighter screen.
Currently, behind the glass, we have the touch technology for the screen. Here, Apple may be looking to adopt in-cell touch panels, which merge the glass and the touch sensors, according to the latest news from those good old sources. This technology is being ramped up for launch later this year and might just make it into the iPhone 5.
Prototypes and Perception
So, there you have the front, back and sides of a potential iPhone 5 model, made out of cutting edge technologies, that can easily be formed into any shape you like. As stated, there are basic limitations on a smartphone, but Apple can choose to go with a new screen size, a new shape and other styling as it feels the need.
We'll find out later in the year what the company decides to produce, (given any or all of these technologies could appear in development models, causing any number of media frenzies) and what it can cram into the innards. That may possibly take place in June at Apple's worldwide developer conference, with an October launch looking the most likely.
As for the iPad, most of these technologies are applied at smaller scales first and then scaled up. Short of restyling the whole thing, perhaps with the iPad Mini concept, Apple may well take its time, such is its market dominance, and only introduce these new features when it feels the pressure to do so.