iPhone 7: Apple patents flexible battery, screen and frame
Last year Apple was criticised for building a £600 smartphone that bends in owners’ pockets, but now it seems that with the iPhone 7 it may try to turn that weakness into a strength.
The company has been granted a patent for a flexible handset, in which the frame, screen, battery and other components will bend and move over one another without being damaged.
“A flexible electronic device may include a flexible display, a flexible housing and one or more flexible internal components configured to allow the flexible electronic device to be deformed,” the patent filing states.
That has led to speculation that Apple may try to incorporate the technology into the iPhone 7, improving the durability of its superslim smartphone, and possibly enabling new features.
“A twisty device opens up other possibilities,” says IT Wire. “Not only will it be more resistant to external forces, but the very act of bending it could be used to initiate some command or other. Smart designers could come up with a dozen ways to take advantage of the functionality.”
Further speculation about the screen has focused on whether the iPhone 7 will use an LCD display, like all previous iPhones, or whether Apple may introduce an OLED screen of the type it uses for the Apple Watch.
Each kind of screen has its advantages: LCD is better at displaying whites, and lasts longer; OLED is better at displaying blacks, and offers faster refresh rates.
Earlier this year, Chinese website MacX.cn, which has a good track record of publishing leaked information about Apple products, suggested that the company had ordered OLED screens in a range of sizes.
“Based on the information given,” IT Pro reported at the time, “the iPhone 7 could very well sport a five-inch screen with 400ppi resolution. The iPhone 6, Apple’s latest smartphone release, has a 4.7-inch screen with 326ppi.”
However, more recent reports suggest that Apple will stick with LCDs. JP Morgan analyst Narci Chang has said that a huge investment in screen-maker Japan Display shows that Apple is not turning its back on the technology.
“Japan Display confirmed plans for the new $1.4 billion LTPS LCD plant in central Japan earlier this month, AppleInisider reports, “Apple will partially fund construction of that facility, in return for exclusive access to the factory’s output.”
There is also some scepticism about the idea that Apple has imminent plans to launch a flexible iPhone. Rumours about such a device have surfaced many time before, but so far it has never been built.
Many analysts will therefore treat the latest speculation with caution, and it comes as contradictory reports suggest that Apple may try to solve the “bendgate” issue by making the successor to the iPhone 6 more rigid rather than less.
Taiwan’s Economic Daily News reports that Apple will build the larger version of the next-generation iPhone using the stronger form of aluminium that it developed for the Apple Watch. The new alloy is 60 per cent harder than the version used in the current iPhone, but still only a third of the weight of stainless steel.
Industry insiders say that it is very likely that the iPhone 7 will benefit from materials and technologies developed for the new smartwatch.
“Apple has been very consistent when it comes to integrating features across its product portfolio,” Forbes reports, referring to the examples of the high-definition retina display and Touch ID fingerprint reader, which have now spread across the model range.
Another technology developed for the Apple Watch, Force Touch – which allows the device to distinguish between light taps and firmer pressure on its touchscreen – is also making the transition to other products. It has already been built in to MacBook trackpads, and rumours suggest that it too may find its way into the iPhone 7 (see below).
More iPhone 7 rumours
Few high-profile design changes: Having come up with an all-new aesthetic for the iPhone 6, Apple is unlikely to alter the look and feel of the handset for the next update. Changes to the operating system and upgrades for individual components will take centre-stage, assuming Apple follows its usual pattern of product releases. “It’s likely the update will focus on internal improvements rather than a new external look,” says MacRumors. However, this prediction may be off the table if it turns out that Apple is abandoning plans for an iPhone 6S and is moving straight to the iPhone 7 (see below)
New aluminium frame: Although the design is unlikely to change substantially, it may be built from a new material. According to Taiwan’s Economic Daily News, Apple is planning to make use of the “Series 7000” aluminium alloy it developed for the Apple Watch on its smartphones too. The metal is “designed to be 60 per cent stronger than most aluminum, and one-third the density of stainless steel, while still maintaining a light weight”, MacRumors says.
Higher-resolution screen: When Apple launched the iPhone 4 in June 2010, it said the “Retina” screen provided the maximum resolution perceptible to the human eye. Nevertheless, it stepped up the screen resolution for the iPhone 6 Plus, boosting pixels per inch from 326 to 401 for its supersized smartphone and describing the new screen as a “Retina HD Display”. The 4.7-inch model retained the 326ppi screen, but reports from China quoting supply chain sources suggest that the smaller version of the iPhone 7 may get a screen that’s slightly larger and significantly sharper. “The iPhone 7 could very well sport a five-inch screen with 400ppi resolution,” says IT Pro, summarising the reports. Changing the size of the screen would be an unusual step for the first upgrade following a major redesign, but if reports prove correct that Apple is accelerating a substantial package of upgrades for this year’s new mode (see below), then this could be among them.
Samsung chips: It may be all change under the skin too, if reports that Samsung will be making the iPhone 6S or 7 processors proves correct. Bloomberg quotes “people with direct knowledge of the matter” who say that Samsung has regained its monopoly on Apple’s chip business. Last year it lost part of the contract to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.
Dual-lens camera: In February rumours emerged that the camera could be in line for a substantial overhaul. John Gruber of Daring Fireball, a respected source of Apple information, said he has heard that the iPhone 7 might get “the biggest camera jump ever”. He added: “I don’t even know what sense this makes, but I’ve heard that it’s some kind of weird two-lens system where the back camera uses two lenses and it somehow takes it up into DSLR quality imagery.” That vague suggestion has now been largely discredited, as adding a second lens to the rear of the camera would require a thorough redesign of the handset chassis, and that’s unlikely so soon after the all-new iPhone 6 was released (see above).
3-D camera: Another long-shot, but not entirely out of the question. Apple has recently snapped up an Israeli-based company called LinX, which specialises in high-tech camera sensors. That, according to Business Insider, could have a dramatic effect on the camera capability of the iPhone 7. “LinX’s technology won’t only enable the iPhone to take better, sharper images – it could also allow the phone to capture three-dimensional photos, eliminate an annoying aesthetic problem where the cameras on the latest iPhones stick out, and solve a bunch of other problems.” Having spent $20m acquiring the company, Apple is likely to be looking for ways to capitalise on the technology it now owns – but whether it makes it into the iPhone 7 may well depend on when that handset comes out. If it comes out this year then it’s unlikely that Apple would get a LinX camera unit into production in time, but if as initially believed, the iPhone 7 is scheduled for 2016, that might allow enough time.
Better image stabilisation: This seems a better bet. Apple often updates the spec of its cameras the year after introducing an all-new phone, and a patent filing suggests that the company is trying to work out how it can bring optical image stabilisation to a smartphone. The technology it describes in the patent application involves “an image sensor and a zoom lens assembly including a plurality of movable lens elements arranged to be moved independent of one another”. The challenge will be miniaturising the system so that it would fit into the iPhone frame, but few would bet against some kind of boost the the iPhone 6S’s photographic prowess.
The demise of the iPhone 5C: When Apple introduced the multi-coloured iPhone 5C in 2014, it was seen as a bit to broaden the appeal of the phone beyond the premium market. However, sales figures for the 5C have been disappointing, while the high-end iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have been runaway successes. It therefore seems likely that Apple will kill off its sub-prime plastic handset – but keep on the aluminium-framed iPhone 5S to cater for customers who still want a four-inch smartphone.
iPhone 6S or 7 price: There is no word yet on the likely cost of the next iPhone, but we can be sure that it will be at least as expensive as the existing model. That means an entry level price of £539 for a 16GB, 4.7-inch model, and £619 for the 5.5-inch plus model. However, prices may be even higher if Apple follows Samsung’s lead. The latter has priced the Galaxy S6 Edge at £760, which may tempt Apple to push up its own prices and profit margins.
A built-in Sim card: This is already in use on the iPad, but is likely to be resisted by Apple’s mobile network partners. Building a Sim card into the body of the iPhone 6S would allow engineers to save valuable space within the handset’s chassis, allowing them either to slim down the frame, make the battery bigger or add new components such as a second rear-facing camera lens (see above). In theory it would also allow customers to switch more easily between mobile network providers, but in practice it’s likely that the networks would restrict that facility.
More powerful processor: In January a Taiwanese tech news website reported that sources in the Apple supply chain had revealed that the iPhone 6S would have 2GB of Ram, twice what’s available in the iPhone 6. It seemed like a credible claim given that Apple often upgrades processor chips the year after it releases an all-new iPhone design, and it has since been backed up by similar reports from other sources. AppleInsider reported last week that its own inside man has confirmed that the new phones will go on sale with a 2GB chip. “Additional Ram would allow iOS to leave background tasks and tabs in Safari open for longer without a need to reload or refresh,” it says. “But additional RAM can also come with costs to battery life, as memory constantly consumes power.”
Waterproof casing and components: Another patent application filed by Apple shows that the company is working on ways to waterproof its devices, although it’s not clear whether the technology will be ready in time to make a debut on the iPhone 6S. According to the patent documents, Apple is not planning to rely on sealed phone casings, but will instead coat individual electric components within the iPhone with a water-repellant film.
Sapphire crystal display: Persistent rumours and reports suggested that the last iPhone would benefit from a sapphire crystal screen coating – and immensely strong glass-like substance that is highly scratch resistance – but in the end it never materialised. Reports suggest that Apple and its suppliers had trouble manufacturing sufficient quantities to equip the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, but already the rumour mill is chattering about the prospect of a sapphire crystal iPhone 7. That may be wishful thinking, but one thing is confirmed: the company is planning to use sapphire crystal for the Apple Watch, which is due this spring.
Improved TouchID sensor: The company has big plans for Apple Pay, the payment system that it hopes will take the place of credit and debit cards for in-store transactions. According to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, the company is preparing “a better and and safer Apple Pay user experience by reducing reading errors” of its fingerprint scanner. That may also help to allay security fears as British banks give customers the option to sign in to their accounts using TouchID.
Pretty in pink: one aesthetic change we can expect is a new colour added to the iPhone 6S palette, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper has spoken to a source who has confirmed that the next model will keep the same screen sizes as the currrent phone, but will be available in pink as well as black, white and gold. In formulating the particular shade of pink, Apple seems more likely to follow the lead of the rose gold Apple Watch rather than the candy-bright iPhone 5C
A trade-in scheme for non iPhone users: iPhone owners are already able to trade in old phones for the latest models, and now Apple is planning to extend the offer to owners of smartphones made by other companies. “Apple will soon introduce a new recycling and trade-in program that will accept non-Apple smartphones, notably including Android and BlackBerry devices, in exchange for gift cards to be used toward the purchase of new iPhones,” reports 9to5Mac.com. The program is designed to encourage more people to make the switch to Apple, in the hope of developing long-term customers.
iPhone 7 in 2015: Apple ‘will abandon iPhone 6S’
Apple is planning to launch the iPhone 7 this September, a year ahead of its expected arrival date, according to an industry analyst. As a result, the iPhone 6S model name would never see the light of day.
Reports suggest that Apple is working on an update for its flagship handset that will make it faster, stronger, lighter and better at taking photographs (see below) – although none of these claims has yet been substantiated.
Under the company’s usual launch schedule, last year’s iPhone 6 would be followed by an iPhone 6S this year. But Ming-Chi Kuo, an analyst at KGI Securities, says the new phone will introduce significant new features – prompting Apple to break with convention and call it the iPhone 7.
According to Kuo, whom MacRumors says “has a respectable track record at reporting on Apple’s upcoming plans”, Apple will introduce Force Touch – a technology it developed for the Apple Watch – on this year’s new iPhone, and then update it in 2016.
Force Touch can differentiate between light taps on a touchscreen and longer, harder pressure. That would allow the phone to respond to different kinds of pressure in different ways, for example replying to the sender of an email in response to a light tap, or replying to all in response to a stronger touch.
AppleInsider reported last month that Apple had planned to build Force Touch into the iPhone 6, but removed it after technical difficulties. It too predicted that the next model, which it called the 6S, would make use of the technology.
Now, however, Kuo suggests that the introduction of Force Touch “may be significant enough for Apple to call its next iPhone the iPhone 7”, MacRumors reports – a move that would consign the iPhone 6S to history before it was even unveiled.
But many commentators were sceptical of the suggestion, despite the accuracy of Kuo’s past predictions.
“We really don’t think that this is the case,” says Expert Reviews. “After all, with the iPhone 5S Apple introduced Touch ID and went 64-bit: these huge changes weren’t enough for the company to jump straight to iPhone 6, and Force Touch isn’t even in that league.”
However, the publication is reluctant to rule out a change in iPhone naming conventions. Apple may drop the 6S, it says, but only “because the company has decided that the ‘S’ range of phones is a bit confusing and clear model numbers make more sense”.
In some quarters, there seems to be little doubt that the iPhone 6S still lives. Last week a German online retailer included an iPhone 6S, 6S Plus and 6C for sale in its inventory, but the move was dismissed as “a mistake” or a “publicity stunt to attract attention”, tech news website BGR says.
It would be a major surprise if Apple was close enough to launching any of these models that retailers would be entering their details into their sales systems.
Apple never comments on leaks and rumours before products are officially launched.
What about the four-inch iPhone 6C?
Reports emerged recently that Apple would launch a new small-screened handset, called the iPhone 6C, alongside the iPhone 6S this autumn. If the 6S is off the agenda, where does that leave the iPhone 6C?
Since the debate essentially revolves around naming conventions, the four-inch device could just as easily be called the iPhone 7C. But if the previous reports are correct and Apple is planning to call its a small iPhone the 6C, that would suggest that the more recent claims about the demise of the iPhone 6S are mistaken. It seems very unlikely that Apple would simultaneously launch phones called the iPhone 7 and iPhone 6C as it would suggest that one was already out of date.
One other possibility is that both stories are correct, but that the source of information about the small iPhone predated the decision to change the name of the larger model. The DigiTimes story that broke news of the smaller handset two weeks ago described “a four-inch device currently being referred to as iPhone 6C”.
It is therefore possible that Apple is now referring to the device, if indeed it exists at all, as the iPhone 7C.
Should Apple launch a four-inch iPhone 6C?
“It makes perfect sense,” writes Gordon Kelly for Forbes, suggesting that Apple is “finally ready to give millions of iPhone users the handset they have always wanted.
Except that there’s a catch, he says. Apple’s plans, at least according to what’s been leaked so far, suggest that the small-screened phone will be a cheaper model, made out of plastic rather than aluminium.
“Going down this route makes the same mistake as so many Android handset makers (Sony aside): treating small phones as second class phones,” he writes. “There’s no logic to this, phone size is merely personal preference.”
Financial site Motley Fool is somewhat cooler on the idea of a four-inch iPhone 6C, in any form – and it seems to think that the plastic frame could be its strongest suit.
“It’s an interesting idea, and one that certainly makes sense in several ways,” writes Andrew Tonner. “The iPhone 5c, although breaking with some past norms, was actually a smart financial move for Apple. Thanks to the low-cost inputs like its casing, the iPhone 5c actually generated a higher gross margin than Apple would have earned if it had kept the iPhone 5 as its $99 ‘second tier’ handset.”