First Click: What's Apple's next move now that everyone’s making metal and glass phones?

January 19th, 2016

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In among all the official news of this month’s Consumer Electronics Show, a series of concordant leaks and reports revealed Apple’s plans to omit the headphone jack from its next iPhone. It was pretty much a press release by leak — with Apple presumably happy to get the bad news out ahead of time so everyone can freak out and calm down well ahead of the actual iPhone 7 release. But more interesting to me was the stuff that was left unsaid: why is Apple making such a drastic change and does it have anything to do with the accompanying rumors of wireless charging and a waterproof design? Those are not things that work easily with metal phones, so could Apple seriously be considering switching away from the aluminum unibody design that it’s been iterating on since the iPhone 5 in 2012?

The reason why this feels like more than an idle suspicion in 2016 is the proliferation of phones like the $200 Honor 5X and the $249 Oppo F1. Both sport handsome metal bodies and build quality that would seem to far exceed their modest price. Only that’s no longer the case: high-quality metal construction is no longer the exclusive preserve of premium phones, and last year’s HTC One A9 ably demonstrated just how perfectly the iPhone can be copied by Android device makers. Samsung switched to metal construction in 2014 and hasn’t looked back since. Aluminum and unibody designs are now commonplace, and CES was a perfect exhibit of that, with a litany of CNC-machined aluminum devices like laptops, battery cases, portable media players, and even some headphones.

When the rest of the world zigs, Apple is already zagging

Apple’s motivation when making iPhone design decisions is pretty transparent. The company’s overarching goal is to stay unique and distinct, whether through the best components, the best materials available for mass production, the best software, or some combination of the three. That’s why Touch ID, Apple Pay, and 3D Touch all got paraded so loudly when they were launched, and it’s also why Apple has a small army working on its iSight camera. When the rest of the world zigs, Apple is already zagging. Well, the zig thing right now is to encase everything into a metal unibody, as Huawei told The Verge when launching the Honor 5X. So where do you zag?

That’s a question for the entire mobile industry to get to grips with this year. Cameras will improve gradually as usual. Processors will get faster. Displays will become even more splendid. Where will design and materials go? Having failed to create a mass-production sapphire crystal screen for the iPhone 6, Apple is now reportedly working on three different designs for the iPhone 7. The most ambitious among those designs could well see the company moving beyond the now-commonplace aluminum to something more exotic. Could it be liquid metal, as with the Turing Phone? Perhaps a hard-wearing ceramic back cover, as with the OnePlus X Ceramic? Apple has the scale and resources to turn such niche designs into mainstream consumer products — it did it before with aluminum and glass, and it has the profit motive to keep pushing forward.

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