Apple may be pursuing a new kind of touch panel technology for its next-generation iPhone, presumably called “iPhone 6.” A new report released by The China Times on Thursday said “Apple intends to switch to other touch technology in the next generation of mobile phones,” mentioning a “Touch On Display” panel that’s currently being developed by Innolux Corp., one of Apple’s many suppliers.
“Due to interference problems from the built-in touch panel [and] the frequent sensitivity issues in the Apple iPhone 5, Apple intends to switch to other touch technology [sic] in the next generation of mobile phones,” The China Times said.
The China Times explains that Innolux’s “Touch On Display” panels are both thin and tough; compared to traditional touch designs, the touch panel itself is only 0.5 mm “and can do a 10-point full-featured multi-touch,” meaning the display is significantly more sensitive too.
Innolux has reportedly been licensed by Sharp to use IGZO technology on its 3G and 5G lines, which may indicate Innolux’s intentions to play a bigger role in supplying parts to Apple. It’s also possible that Innolux’s “Touch On Display” panels use Sharp’s IGZO display technology, which would mean that Apple is indeed exploring options beyond the same in-cell screen used on the iPhone 5.
Is Apple Returning To On-Cell Displays So Soon?
The iPhone 5 is the first iPhone to feature “in-cell” technologies, compared to the “on-cell” display processes used in every iPhone released prior.
Compared to on-cell technologies, in-cell displays effectively remove a layer between the multi-touch screen and LCD display, making the screens thinner, stronger and more sensitive to touch while less sensitive to environmental changes.
On paper, it sounds like in-cell tech has on-cell beat. So why would Apple switch back?
While the reasons for a possible switch aren’t clear, it could be that Apple is not pleased with the screen’s sensitivity for multi-touch motions -- after the iPhone’s release in September, customers complained about an issue where the screen had trouble recognizing rapid diagonal swiping.
While the motion in question doesn’t affect most users – most apps don’t ask for diagonal swiping – some games like Fruit Ninja do rely on diagonal swiping quite often. This singular screen issue may seem trivial or minor to some customers or fans, but Apple may think it’s a bigger deal.
Either In-Cell Or On-Cell, The Key Is IGZO
The China Times has a mixed track record with accurate reporting, but many other news sources have also similarly reported on Apple’s apparent interest in featuring new panels on the iPhone 6, even if those other reports didn’t mention Innolux’s new “Touch On Display” tech.
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 better 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 8 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.
"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 ultra-high 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."
Sharp and Innolux may need to get moving on these displays if they hopes to get their displays featured in the next-generation of iOS devices this year. 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."
iPhone 6: What We Know
I'll be blunt: We don't know much about the alleged iPhone 6. Besides reports of accelerated 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.
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.