Apple wants to keep making its iOS products thinner and lighter each year, and one way to make any device thinner is to make its display thinner. Apple is reportedly investigating a display solution from Sharp that's thinner, more sensitive to touch, more beautiful to look at, and sucks up less power than current-gen displays on the iPhone and iPad.
A new report from DigiTimes says Apple is interested in Sharp's ultra-thin, ultra-strong IGZO displays, and may choose to use the technology in its next-generation iPhone, iPad, and iPad Mini products expected to release next year.
"The sources said Apple is in further discussions with Sharp over IGZO panel production capacity estimates for 2013 and is also inquiring about whether AU Optronics' (AUO) L5C line could be used to produce the technology," DigiTimes said.
Displays made from indium gallium zinc oxigo -- IGZO for short -- are not only the best choice for any ultra-thin hardware devices Apple may hope to produce, but the displays can also reportedly handle a display density north of 330 ppi, which would be pretty impressive considering the new iPad 4 can only achieve 264 ppi.
But one of the best aspects of IGZO technology, besides its display quality and thinness, is its lower power consumption. Most Apple products, from the iPhone 5 to the iPad 3 and 4, require massive batteries to power the devise for 8 hours -- this is because the Retina Displays on these large devices are extremely power hungry. If Apple wanted its iPhone 6, iPad 5 or iPad Mini 2 to not only last longer during the day but also charge faster when plugged in, IGZO seems to be the way to go.
Sharp was originally believed to be making IGZO display panels for the first-generation iPad Mini -- this turned out to be false. However, a Nov. 7 note from analyst Horace Dediu points out that Apple spent $2.3 billion for "product tooling, manufacturing process equipment and infrastructure" this year; Dediu believes this massive pile of cash was used to bail out Sharp, which has been in financial straits, and to leverage their investment in next-gen display making.
"Sharp is a key supplier of screens to Apple but is also in financial distress," Dediu wrote in his analysis. "Sharp has also been the object of an intended investment by Foxconn [Hon Hai]. That deal fell through as Sharp’s finances deteriorated. My guess is that these attempts to shore up Sharp are directed by Apple to ensure both continuity of supply and a balanced supplier base (offsetting Samsung, another supplier.) If Sharp were to enter into some form of bankruptcy, the key plant(s) used in producing screens for Apple might be 'up for grabs' by creditors and they might be taken off-line, jeopardizing Apple’s production capacity, irrespective of contractual obligations."
Companies like Qualcomm have invested in Sharp's promising display technology, but believe Sharp is going all in on IGZO to save the company.
Luckily for Sharp, it looks like many companies will need its IGZO technology. In a report from the Middle East North Africa Financial Network (MENAFN) dated Nov. 7, AUO's detailed plans to develop a Retina Display for the next iPad Mini noted that achieving the high resolution required to make the screen a "Retina Display" may require IGZO technology.
"With the disclosure of the specifications for the next-generation iPad Mini by Apple Inc., AU Optronics Corp. has been developing a retina panel with resolution as high as 497 ppi,"reported the SinoCast Daily Business Beat via MENAFN. "It is said that ultrahigh resolution can not be developed without the technology of indium gallium zinc oxigo (IGZO), and the technology of Gate IC on array (GOA) is also indispensable since the next-generation iPad Mini will have an ultra-narrow frame. The technology of GOA helps save the room of IC on the rim and narrow the frame of the screen to the largest extent."
Furthermore, Innolux Corporation has reportedly also been licensed by Sharp to use IGZO technology on its 3G and 5G lines, which may indicate Innolux's intentions to enter Apple's supply chain some time in the near future, according to DigiTimes' sources.
"Market observers said if Japan- and Korea-based panel makers are able to provide adequate IGZO panel capacity to Apple in 2013 for its future products then Korea-based panel makers' panel shipments are likely to decline during the period," DigiTimes wrote.
Sharp may need to get moving on these displays if it hopes to include IGZO in the next-generation of iOS devices from Apple this year, including the alleged iPhone 6, iPad 5 and iPad Mini 2. On Nov. 19, DigiTimes said Apple's suppliers are expected to churn out a new iPhone and new iPad "around the middle of 2013."
"Apple is expected to introduce its next-generation iPad and iPhone series around the middle of 2013, which will boost demand for ICs in particular communications-related chips during the latter half of the first quarter," said DigiTimes, citing "market observers."
Days prior to DigiTimes' report, China's Commercial Times reported that Apple is planning to begin "trial production of a new version of its iPhone 5," which it called the "iPhone 5S," rather than the "iPhone 6." No name for the next-generation iPhone has been appointed by Apple, and it won't receive an official name until its eventual unveiling.
"Facing low yield rates in the production of iPhone 5, Apple has accelerated the certification processes for related parts and components for the iPhone 5S," The Commercial Times wrote.
Jessie Shen of DigiTimes added that two companies Apple has contracted to work on its iOS devices, including chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and packaging group Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE), are expected to report strong results for the first quarter of 2013. This would make sense with Apple's alleged timetable, given the massive amount of components needed to ship these popular smartphones and tablets on time.
The Commercial Times made no mention of a new iPad, but like DigiTimes, The Commercial Times also claimed that the iPhone 5 successor could start mass production around Q1 2013 and launch in early to mid-summer 2013 -- even though Apple has followed a fall launch schedule for its iPhone since 2011.
While these two reports may correlate, The Commercial Times and DigiTimes have not always been accurate news sources in the past. The Commercial Times' reported "pre-production acceleration" of iPhone "5S" parts is merely speculation -- Apple is always busy on its next project and getting components ready seems like a very logical step, regardless of when Apple planned to launch its next iPhone. Save for microprocessors and cellular chips, most of the "prep" work for an iPhone can be done ahead of time.
DigiTimes has a better track record than Commercial Times, but not by much. One the one hand, DigiTimes correctly predicted last December that Apple would launch two new iPads this year, including an iPad with a 7.85-inch display called "iPad Mini" in Q4 2012, and that's exactly what Apple did. On the other hand, DigiTimes incorrectly reported that Apple chose Samsung's quad-core Exynos processor to power its iPhone 5, when in fact Apple went with its own custom-built A6 chip.
The bottom line is, even though these news companies may have sources within Apple's supply chains, there is a lot of information to go around, and the information these sources have isn't always the whole picture. All rumors and reports from abroad should be taken with a grain of salt.
iPhone 6, iPad 5, and iPad Mini 2: What We Know
Besides reports of accelerating chip production -- what else is new -- we've heard very little else about Apple's seventh-generation iPhone. However, if Apple pursues any of its recent patent filings, we may see the iPhone 5S or 6 feature advanced haptics and sensors, possibly built directly into a flexible display.
A newly released 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.
We don't know what Apple has in mind for its fifth-generation iPad -- or "iPad 5" -- but Apple may have something interesting in mind, considering its patents for an iPad with a built-in stand, and one with backside controls for gaming.
We haven't heard production on any device that matches those descriptions, but we have heard that Apple is reportedly working on its second-generation iPad Mini. On Nov. 8, Chinese news site DoNews said that Apple tapped Taiwan-based AU Optronics to begin development on a Retina Display to be fitted for its 7.9-inch tablet.
It's wishful thinking that Apple would include all these technologies in the next iPhone rather implement them over time, but it's certainly fun to think about.
Apple sold 26.9 million iPhone units and 14 million iPad units in Q4 2012.