The iPad 2 is only just out in public, but the iPhone 5 rumors are now ramping up, with hints the new phone may get an all-metal makeover. Does this make good sense?
The iPhone 1 had a 75% aluminum rear face, if you remember back through the mists of time to 2007. A full 100% unibody aluminum chassis eluded the designers because of the antenna design used in the phone—resulting in a slightly inelegant black plastic portion for radio transparency. Four years has just scooted past, and now there're hot new rumors the iPhone 5 will get an aluminum unibody chassis—tallying with Apple's design uniformity across the iMac, MacBook Pro, and iPad lineups.
According to Chinese source Economic Daily News, which has had some success in revealing Apple's future plans in advance, the redesign is guided by two headline-grabbing flaws of the iPhone 4: The metallic frame antenna, and the all-glass back. In the case of the antenna, the iPhone 4's redesign (probably falsely, given recent findings by scientists) resulted in the "antennagate" issue, with allegations of wireless connectivity problems if the phone was held in a particular way. The glass back is said to have increased the weight of the phone, displeasing some customers (and, arguably, pleasing others thanks to the sense of "quality" it gives the device), and resulted in structural weaknesses—since now you have two glass panels that could break if you dropped it. There were also issues with white-painted iPhone 4s and insulating the rear camera from leaked light,
So, a reinvention of the iPhone 5 makes sense—Apple may well have learned from the problems and redirected the phone's design to include a new metal back, one that could probably roll off the same production lines as the all-aluminum chassis of the iPad and Macs do, resulting in economies of scale for Apple (and possibly enabling the rumored "cheap iPhone"). It makes the phone more resilient, and solves the camera-light-leak problem.
There's just one issue. Antennas. Apple gets around the problem that a metal chassis blocks wireless radio signals on its iPad and MacBooks by having a radio-transparent plastic "window" cut into the case—it's the Apple logo in both devices (for the iPad's case just the Wi-fi antenna's hidden here, while the 3G antenna is behind another "black plastic bar", partly due to the modular nature of the plug-in 3G board). The iPhone 4's redesign centered on a novel approach to antennas...Apple was very proud of its lateral thinking, making the chassis actually part of the radio system, since this enabled very novel design choices.
It's unlikely to let this cleverness slide for the iPhone 5—the phone would risk looking too much like every generic plastic Android phone out there. We don't know how Apple will reconcile the problem, though we think it's unlikely to return to the ugly plastic bar of the iPhone 1 and more likely it'll work innovatively with yet another antenna redesign. And we're pretty certain it won't look like the rendering that everyone's got on their website today.
Also, if Apple does bow to the public, learn these design lessons, and follow-up with an aluminum iPhone 5, the answer to any question like "Did you get the iPhone 4 wrong?" will be "bite my shiny metal butt!"
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