Earlier this month, DigiTimes sparked an array of “iPhone 6” rumors with a report on Apple’s alleged plans to release a “low-cost iPhone” later this year, and actually make the display larger, not smaller. Following up on this report, Digitimes on Monday said Apple’s next-generation iPhone may feature “plastic for its chassis instead of reinforced glass or unibody metal,” which would help reduce the cost in producing the phone.
“The rumor in the supply chain is that the inexpensive iPhone chassis supplier will reportedly be a U.S.-based electronic manufacturing service (EMS) provider,” DigiTimes wrote.
Within the same story, DigiTimes also noted another rumor circulating around Apple’s supply chain, saying the “entry-level iPhone” will actually feature a hybrid chassis made of both plastic and metal, “with the internal metal parts being able to be seen from outside through special design.”
In many ways, this alleged design for the "iPhone 6" sounds like a mix between the plastic enclosure of the iPhone 3GS from 2009, and Apple's chosen design for the “Bondi blue” iMac in 1998, which was characterized by its brightly colored, translucent plastic casing, letting users see the inside of their desktop computer for the first time.
According to DigiTimes’ sources, the components needed to make the entry-level “iPhone 6” are “currently going through validation,” and the finished product may “show up in the market in the second half of 2013.”
Even though the “low-cost” iPhone 6 was briefly reported by a Reuters article that interviewed Apple marketing guru Phil Schiller, Reuters has since pulled that article, and has refused to make corrections, citing real issues with the source material. Before the Reuters story, however, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg both reported on Apple’s plans to build such a “low-cost” iPhone.
The biggest impetus to build a low-cost iPhone 6, according to DigiTimes, was the “growing sales of the iPad Mini, particularly in China and other emerging markets.” The iPad Mini, while still about $100 more expensive than its other 7-inch tablet counterparts, is smaller, cheaper and more portable than Apple’s full-sized iPad. It’s possible that Apple wants to repeat its success by choosing to release a similarly “smaller, cheaper and more portable” iPhone 6, to appeal to those same “emerging markets” like China.
The Low-Cost iPhone: Helping Apple Break Into New Markets
A low-cost iPhone makes a great deal of sense for Apple, especially if the company wants to expand its presence in countries like China, which is currently Apple’s second largest consumer market. Thanks to newer, smaller, cheaper and more power-efficient chipsets, Apple can afford to build an entry-level to mid-range smartphone on top of the current iPhone – either bigger like the Samsung Galaxy S3, or a smaller “iPhone Nano” – to appeal to markets that can’t quite afford Apple’s most popular product, including many in China. Furthermore, if Apple’s iPhone 6 was not only cheaper but also smaller too, the phone would greatly appeal to the Asian markets where small devices are not only chic, but better to hold in their (smaller) hands.
Speaking of China, Apple is reportedly trying to strike a deal with China Mobile, the largest telecommunications carrier in the world with 703 million active subscribers. On Jan. 10, Apple CEO Tim Cook stopped by China Mobile headquarters to meet and discuss “matters of cooperation” with Xi Guohua, the company’s chairman.
According to DigiTimes, Apple plans to work with China Mobile to build a TD-LTE version of the iPhone, which will work on the carrier’s high-speed networks.
DigiTimes isn’t alone in believing Apple’s working on a newly sized, low-cost iPhone. On Jan. 2, Topeka Markets analyst Brian White said Apple is likely to release its next iPhone in more colors and screen sizes, implying Apple might sell an iPhone smaller or larger than the current iPhone 5, or even previous-gen iPhone 4S or 4 units.
"Although Apple offers a 4-inch screen on the iPhone 5 and a 3.5-inch screen on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 4, the company has never offered multiple screen sizes for a single model," White said. "We believe this is about to change with the next iPhone offering different screen dies that we believe will allow Apple to better bifurcate the market and expand its reach."
The iPhone 6: What We've Heard So Far
Besides different screen sizes and colors, we've heard that a major focus in the iPhone 6 will be the display. Apple might be going back to the drawing board, as the company is reportedly dissatisfied with the in-cell technologies used to make the iPhone 5's display, and is considering other options.
A Jan. 3 report released by The China Times said Apple might switch to a "Touch On Display" panel currently in development at Taiwan-based Innolux Corp., which has reportedly been licensed to use Sharp's proprietary IGZO display technology.
However, whether or not Apple chooses Innolux to make the next iPhone's screens, Apple is likely going to use Sharp's ultra-thin IGZO display technology for the next iPhone.
In late December, DigiTimes and Apple analyst Horace Dediu both mentioned Apple’s alleged investment in the ultra-thin IGZO displays produced by Sharp, predicting inclusion of the technology in Apple’s next batch of iOS devices, including iPhones and iPads. Dediu also pointed to Apple’s recent $2.3 billion investment in “product tooling, manufacturing process equipment and infrastructure,” believing the cash was used to help bail out Sharp, which had been in financial straits in 2012. Sharp is reportedly going “all in” on IGZO technology, so it’s possible Apple saved Sharp to leverage its investment in the next generation of displays.
IGZO display technology is not only thin and tough, but it can even handle higher screen densities than Apple’s Retina Display, which is visually stunning on its own. IGZO displays can reportedly handle display densities north of 330 ppi; for a quick comparison, the new iPad 4 can only achieve 264 ppi.
One of the advantages of IGZO display technology is its lower power consumption. Most Apple products, from the iPhone 5 to the iPad 4, require cartoonishly big batteries to achieve just eight hours of power -- this is because current-gen Retina Displays are extremely power hungry. If Apple wanted its iPhone 6 to not only last longer during the day but also charge faster when plugged in, IGZO seems to be the way to go for the next generation of iOS devices.
Giving credence to these rumors, Taiwan-based AU Optronics (AUO) reportedly plans to develop a Retina Display for the next-generation iPad Mini, which may require IGZO technology to pull off a feasible Retina Display.
Besides these display rumors, we haven't heard too much about what Apple will release in the iPhone 6. However, we have seen a few interesting patents: A patent filed in March but published in September described tactile keyboards, flexible displays and laser microphones and speakers built into an iPhone, designed to conform to the user's needs. Flexible displays would allow for easier holding and typing, while the highly advanced tactile screens would create buttons when needed so the user can feel "keyboard" letters as they type, or touch the topography on Apple's Maps.
It's wishful thinking that Apple would include all these technologies in the iPhone 6 rather implement them over time, but it's certainly fun to think about.
Apple sold 26.9 million iPhone units in Q4 2012, and plans to announce sales figures for the iPhone 5, iPad 4 and iPad Mini during the company’s Q1 2013 earnings report, scheduled to be released on Jan. 23.