Apple's New Sapphire And LiquidMetal Patent Clear Way For New iPhone 6 Design

May 28 2014, 10:38am CDT | by

Something funny has been going on in the Apple leak-o-verse of late. YouTube and the tech blogs are awash in “leaks” of the “iPhone 6 dummy.” One video, released on the French tech blog Nowhereelse.fr features a hand rotating a mockup of a 4.7″ iPhone with winsome Chinese music in the background. We get it, this is a leak from China!

null . Dickson played a big role in the last-minute leaks of what turned out to be actual factory-made backplates for the iPhone 5S and 5C. These leaks set a new standard for iPhone foreknowledge, but it is still unclear who leaked them and why. Fast forward to the 2014 edition of the same show and Dickson is at it again, this time much earlier in the process and with much less credible artifacts. It seems abundantly clear that the current “leaks” are really just manufacturing prototypes, likely 3D printed, created by companies that make iPhone cases. In other words, these are derivative industrial products at best.

The fact that these “dummies” almost certainly do not come from Apple’s actual factories does not, however, mean that their geometry is not accurate. The 4.7″ screen, the iPod Touch-style rounded edges and side buttons, these may well be spot on. These, after all, are the details that the case manufacturers care about, and getting a jump on competitors is the raison d’être for these prototypes. But a product is more than geometry, of course.

In an amusing video on the UrAvgConsumer YouTube channel, Judner Aura shows an iPhone 6 dummy (acquired via Sonny Dickson) to a seemingly random assortment of young New York hipsters. The almost-universal reaction, after the obligatory “Wow,” is that it reminds them of a Samsung phone! Considering that the size of the dummy is similar to the last few Galaxy S smartphones, this is not surprising. But the demonstration, funny as it is, misses the point of what makes Apple products unique and valuable.

Four pieces of Apple news shed some light on what could make the next iPhone, be it “6″ or “Air,” truly unique. First, just yesterday Apple was granted U.S. Patent No. 8,738,104 for “Methods and systems for integrally trapping a glass insert in a metal bezel.” In practical terms this means that it can now seamlessly encase glass, or more likely sapphire, inside of LiquidMetal bezels. Second, Apple has been ramping up sapphire production through its partner GT Advanced Technologies and 9to5Mac reports that sapphire ingots from GTAT have started shipping to one of Apple’s Chinese manufacturing partners. Third, AppleInsider reports that Apple just renewed its exclusive contract to use LiquidMetal in consumer products through 2015. And, according to Jonny Evans at Computer World, “Apple can annually renew its exclusive rights for the rest of time if it wants.” Fourth and finally, LiquidMetal Technologies has signed a more favorable agreement with Visser Precision Cast which previously had an exclusive arrangement to manufacture the material. Under the new agreement, LiquidMetal can contract with other suppliers as well. The move sets the stage for greater adoption of amorphous metal casting technology and, crucially, lower prices.

There is no telling if the machines are actually in gear for this combination of technologies to make it into the next iPhone. The sapphire component seems assured, but no company has reported scaling up LiquidMetal production yet. But the point is that if not now, then next year. This is how Apple makes high-value products, by using materials and processes unavailable to other companies and pairing it with industrial design and user experience finesse that is equally rare.

The supposed prototypes that have been circulating do not have any of that. They are in fact, just dummies, and the design details such that they are seem questionable and not to Apple’s standards. People who think the iPhone 6 dummy looks like a Samsung phone are being dummies themselves! Apple will not come off the manufacturing line with something that is not stunningly beautiful and innovative.

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