Carbon-Fiber iDevices? We Think Not

carbon iPhone

According to new information that's allegedly leaking from Apple, Steve Jobs is intent on pushing for wireless iDevice syncing. Better Wi-Fi connections thanks to a carbon fiber chassis may be the solution, it is said. Let's see if this makes sense.

Wireless syncing has been pursued in Apple's labs for up to two years, says Apple-watching website Cult of Mac, and it's now a tech that's finally coming to fruition after so much research for two reasons. One is that Steve Jobs himself is "pushing hard" for the tech to mature, and the other is that Apple's realized the key to make everything work in a consumer-pleasing, trademark Apple "it just works" kinda way is to improve the wireless connection powers of the iDevices. And the way to do this, Apple's concluded, is to make the things out of carbon fiber. The emphasis in the report is on iPods, with Jobs reportedly seeing wireless syncing as vital to rejuvenating the increasingly obsolete MP3 players, but the tech could be applied to the iPhone and iPad just as easily.

This is all wonderful--in theory. In reality, "It's all a bit askew" is probably a better assessment of these rumors. Of course Apple's been pursuing wireless sync research for years--we have no proof, but the company is not stupid. Other competing devices already offer the ability, and its benefits to all users are self-explanatory. We don't know for sure, but we do know Apple tests all sorts of design variations, and this is a logical one.

So lets talk about aluminum. Apple's pushed to use it, in an increasingly "unibody" format, across its entire lineup. It's cheap, it's durable, it's different to typical plastic products, it's strong, it permits interesting design decisions, it's pretty recyclable and thus green, it's easily workable. The list goes on, and now even the tiny iPod Nano sports an aluminum body. There are so many reasons for Apple to choose aluminum--except one. It's not particularly radio-transparent because it's a metal and thus conductive.

That's why your iPad has a plastic Apple logo on the back--to let Wi-Fi signals out--and why the 3G edition has a black plastic bar covering the cellular antennas, just as the first-edition iPhone did. Aluminum forces radio design compromises, but you can't really argue with the problem because you'd be arguing with the laws of physics. This issue is partly why Apple tried a new design with the iPhone 4: The metal edge of the device allowed for the bold decision of a structural glass back, harder than plastic, different than aluminum.

We've speculated Apple's looking at an all-metal design for the iPhone 5, which would require similar bold designs for the antennas as the iPhone 4, but it's possible.

And then there's this talk about carbon fiber. It's odd because, you know, carbon fiber is conductive, too. As the FAA's book "Pilot's handbook of aeronautical knowledge" points out, "internal radio antennas may be found in fiberglass composites because fiberglass is transparent to radio frequencies, where carbon fiber is not"--something pilots and engineers have to know as more and more aircraft parts are made with modern composite materials.

Apple did just hire an expert bicycle manufacturer, with specific knowledge of carbon fiber construction, and it would be tempting to link these two stories up as a result. But Kevin Kenny's expertise is in building super strong and super light structural objects (bikes!) out of carbon fiber. And you can see where Apple might love this--a carbon fiber iPhone/iPod/iPad chassis could make it almost indestructible, much lighter, and the thinner structural needs could permit more space for a bigger battery.

In conclusion, wireless syncing? Hell, why not! It's not technically super-hard, it adds an little extra sales attraction, and that could even work for iPods. Apple could easily make this happen soon. Carbon fiber chassis? That would be awesome, although Apple would have to work around the potentially high cost of construction and tackle the issue of coloring the stuff. But it would require some clever design of antennas, it would be all about structures rather than wireless benefits, and it's a lot less likely to arrive faster than wireless syncing.

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