With Apple's annual Worldwide Developer Conference just days away, the yearning iOSphere seethes with rumors, alarums and frights.
This week: touchscreens you can feel, really feel; rumor sites happily boost Liquidmetal's stock price for no good reason; high hopes for a high-definition front camera; and no one will care that iPhone 5 won't be showing up on prepaid carriers' inventory anytime soon.
You read it here second.
"But if this [dynamically tactile touchscreen] really is a hot technology, there's a great chance Apple will rush to get its recently-granted patent into its next iPhone, which is expected to arrive in September or October." -- Dave Smith, International Business Times, following the iOSphere logic that whenever an Apple patent is published by the U.S. government, there's a "great chance" the patent's technology will appear in the next iPhone five months later.
iPhone 5 will have an awesome tactile touch screen
This rumor, as with so many, is based on the deep belief that every Cool Technology flows toward Apple as water flows downhill. It's a variant of the belief that every patent awarded to Apple reveals something that will appear in the very next iDevice, even if it's just weeks away from an expected launch.
A variety of news outlets picked up on a new tactile touch-screen technology unveiled this week at the SID Display Week trade show by a Fremont, Calif.-based startup, Tactus Technology. Using something called "microfluidics," Tactus replaces the conventional top layer of a touch screen with a flexible membrane. Tiny amounts of special oil are pumped through tiny channels in the membrane, "inflating" the keys and buttons of, for example, a qwerty keyboard. You actually have "real" keys to press. When you're done, the oil drains away and the membrane, in theory, flattens out and disappears, to become a flat touch screen again.
It all sounds impossibly complex, but The Verge's Nathan Ingraham was favorably impressed, talking with Tactus CEO and co-founder Craig Ciesla and actually handling a prototype, single image based on an Android smartphone.
In his post, Ingram says the channels are "invisible, for the most part." He also writes about the actual experience of touching the screen: "The key outlines did provide some feedback as to where individual keys start and end, but the physical act of 'pressing' a key didn't provide much feedback yet. Much of the time, it felt as though the capacitive touchscreen was triggered before you had a chance to feel the travel of the fluid-filled area. ... Still, once you notice the outlines of where the keys appear and disappear, they're hard to un-see (though we expect future versions will more naturally integrate the microfluid channels)."
Those qualifications alone, given Apple's obsession with industrial design and UI details, never mind Tactus' clear statement that first products won't be available until mid-2013, make it clear you can forget about this innovation appearing this year on the iPhone 5.
But this is the iOSphere, which rarely lets facts get in the way of enthusiasm.
Dave Smith, writing for International Business Times, covered the Tactus news, and then linked it to another recent patent disclosure covered in early May by Patently Apple, for a "flexible OLED display." Without going into the almost numbingly detailed speculation by Patently Apple, the patent seems to have some type of flexible surface, but uses stacked layers of "piezoelectric elements" to create the physical buttons or keys.
Smith says the patent reveals a "similar technology" to that of Tactus and makes the intuitive leap of faith that lies at the heart of iOSphere rumors: "A similar technology dealing with advanced haptics and feedback is reportedly being built for Apple's sixth-generation smartphone, presumably called the 'iPhone 5.'"
But if even it isn't in iPhone 5, "it's likely that a future iPhone will feature Tactus Technology's dynamic touchscreens," Smith declares. "Feeling buttons or controls on a smartphone would be extremely useful for completing tasks that typically require a keyboard. ... It's an incredible and exciting technology. ... But if this really is a hot technology, there's a great chance Apple will rush to get its recently-granted patent into its next iPhone, which is expected to arrive in September or October."
The conclusion: this incredibly exciting and hot technology may or may not be in this year's iPhone 5.
iPhone 5 will have a Liquidmetal body after all
The test of a good rumor is that it simply. Will. Not. Die.
Liquidmetal is the name of a company that developed a new strong, light alloy, and it's marketing to anyone who uses weaker, heavier alloy in stuff like ... well, smartphones. Apple paid $20 million in 2010 for an exclusive license to use the alloy in consumer electronics. And the iOSphere waxed rhapsodic with hopes that the entire casing for the then-next iPhone would be made from the Wondrousmetal.
So far, Apple has only used it for the iPhone's SIM ejector tool. And one of the inventors of the alloy, Atakan Peker (wrongly identified by 9to5Mac as one of its investors), recently told Business Insider that this substitutionary approach is the most likely use for the alloy; it would be two to four years before Apple is likely to introduce something like a Liquidmetal unibody casing for a MacBook, for example, or some entirely new "breakthrough" product.
And then Liquidmetal CEO Tom Steipp appeared in an 86-second "talking head" video. It was posted on YouTube by a financial news outlet, and the video details indicate it was made for the Southern California Investment Forum. Even 9to5Mac recognized that this "looks to be a video aimed towards potential investors." But that didn't stop them, or others such as iPhone 5 News Blog's Michael Nace, from discerning Matters of Great Import in what is essentially a sales pitch.
Steipp "confirmed his company's involvement by announcing it is supplying Liquidmetal to Apple," reveals 9to5's Jake Smith, as though this was genuine news. He quotes Steipp from the video: "Our technology has been commercialized in a number of accounts, most recently by Apple computer ..." It may be that Steip is referring to some new part that will be appearing in future iPhone, but he could simply be referring to the SIM extractor tool.
At iPhone 5 News Blog, Nace sees the video as a deliberate campaign by Liquidmetal: "LiquidMetal Revitalizes iPhone 5 Form Factor Rumors Ahead Of WWDC" is his headline. "With less than a week to go before the kick-off of the Worldwide Developers Conference, LiquidMetal is injecting themselves back into Apple and iPhone 5 speculation," he writes, adding later, "The timing of this video cannot be overlooked ..."
"Now, with the WWDC less than a week away, LiquidMetal is once again making news, inciting the speculators to once wonder: is LiquidMetal going to show up at the WWDC?"
But a recent story at the stock market opinion site Seeking Alpha suggests that publicly traded Liquidmetal has been playing this card repeatedly, to spur both sales and its stock price, with rumor sites as willing accomplices.
Jason Kuepper notes that the company "has experienced a sharp run-up after rumors surfaced that Apple Inc. would include the technology in the iPhone 5 and future products. But what does that contract mean for Liquidmetal and its shareholders?"
The short answer is: It means whatever Liquidmetal can convince shareholders to believe or hope for. "Liquidmetal's recent run-up in share price may not be fully justified on the surface by rumors that Apple would include the technology in the new iPhone 5," Kuepper says, with masterful understatement. "After all, the $20 million [license] payment was already recorded and gave Apple exclusive rights to the technology, even in the overall consumer electronics industry." And as Kuepper notes, that $20 million is the "only financial upside" to result from the Apple deal.
"Despite this seeming downside, the license deal does provide the company with a great endorsement from one of the world's largest companies," Kuepper writes. "It also increases the company's brand recognition, thanks to the fact that the technology is named after the company. And, this could lead to additional sales by turning the product into a 'household name.'"
No kidding. Just Google "liquidmetal" and "apple."
Kuepper concludes: "Of course, these benefits are forward-looking and investors may want to wait until the Apple hype wears off. The company did not report a positive operating income as of last year and remains in the early commercialization stages."
The one potential problem with that advice is: The Apple hype will never wear off.
iPhone 5 will have a front-facing high-definition camera
"Apple's sixth-generation iPhone could include a front-facing camera capable of HD resolution, according to a new reported [sic] from a trusted analyst insider," according to Josh Ong, writing about a recent "note to investors" (which some consider the investment world's equivalent of "rumor") by Mingchi Kuo, an analyst for KGI Securities.
This particular Trusted Analyst Insider, or TAI, says Apple will make "quite a few essential adjustments" to the Next iPhone, a phrasing that seems like a model of how to dither successfully.
It's not helped by the lack of details in Ong's story. He cites little directly from Kuo's investor note; when he does, it's with such a lack of supporting detail or explanation that one starts to suspect that he, too, doesn't know what Kuo is talking about.
Ong writes that Kuo "believes Apple will also employ a flip-chip (FC) solution for the front-facing camera on the upcoming iPhone" but never explains that a flip-chip solution is. "According to his analysis, the new iPhone's rear camera will have a CCM of 5.55mm and a lens TTL of 4mm, down from 6mm and 4.8mm on the iPhone 4S." But to figure out what that means, we have to turn to Google.
Or read a much more coherent treatment of the same report by Eric Slivka, at Mac Rumors. He succinctly sums up Kuo's insight "that Apple will be making significant improvements to both front and rear cameras on the next-generation iPhone, advances driven by a desire to decrease the thickness of the device and to improve compatibility with a new 16:9 display."
According to Kuo, "[A] number of components have required a slim-down. The component that will undergo the most dramatic make-over is the rear camera. Our research shows that iPhone 5 will feature the first-ever slimmed rear camera of all iPhones, in an effort to deliver an ultra-slim iPhone 5."
The camera will remain at 8 megapixels but Apple will increase the aperture size from f/2.4, on the iPhone 4S, to f/22, according to Kuo. We even learn that CCM refers to "compact camera module," a unit that contains the parts making up the digital camera assembly.
According to Slivka, Kuo argues that Apple's move to a 16:9 aspect ratio in a 4-inch diagonal display for iPhone 5 (vs 4:3 in the current iPhone's VGA-quality front camera) is what's causing the HD upgrade to the front camera: so that Apple can fully exploit the added pixels.
Flip-chip? Slivka's got that covered, too: It's a packing approach for silicon components, in this case comprising the new camera assembly, "that will result in a thinner assembly and simplify lens production by moving the blue glass filter to the camera module itself."
iPhone 5 won't be appearing on your prepaid phone service anytime soon
Sprint subsidiary Virgin Mobile USA just announced that it will offer starting June 29 the iPhone 4 and 4S to prepaid customers, who buy minutes in blocks based on what they think they'll use in the next month.
But everything is connected in the iOSphere: With the iPhone 5 expected between today and Dec. 31, the news caused Cult of Mac's Ryan Faas to wonder, "When Will Virgin Mobile Get The iPhone 5?"
The short answer is: not anytime soon, according to Faas' reasoning. And interestingly, according to Rollup's reasoning, no one will care -- not the carriers, not Apple and not most of all the users.
Besides Virgin Mobile, Cricket in the U.S. also offers prepaid iPhones. There's no contract; the Virgin plans start at $30 a month for 300 minutes of voice, and unlimited texting and data; another $20 a month gives you unlimited voice also. But you pay the full cost of the phone: $649 the 16GB iPhone 4S and $549 for an 8GB iPhone 4. And those are the only models available for prepaid.
Faas notes that Virgin's phone portfolio offers mainly phones that were released first on parent Sprint about a year ago. He argues, without really supporting his claim, that "Sprint makes more money selling on-contract phones that guarantee a monthly revenue stream for the length of the contract." The result, he says, is that the carrier "has a strong incentive to offer the latest and greatest options only to Sprint customers under contract." (He also notes some phone makers might prohibit Sprint from launching the newest models on a prepaid subsidiary.)
Faas doesn't really delve into the market dynamics from the viewpoint of prepaid customers, though he notes somewhat vaguely that they want "solid" phones and "flexibility."
But a USA Today story by Roger Yu paints a picture of a dynamic market growing much faster than the traditional post-paid market, where users buy into two-year contracts in exchange for the mobile carrier's subsidized phone pricing.
The contract market is "saturated," and big carriers now are aggressively targeting users who either need or prefer prepaid. Yu quotes IDC analyst John Weber who says carriers are "are focusing on prepaid as a growth engine. It's not just for those [customers] who fail [a credit check]. It's also for customers who want flexibility."
"The number of 'post-paid' customers fell in the first quarter of this year vs. the previous quarter, the first quarter-over-quarter decline in industry history, according to research firm Recon Analytics," Yu reports. At the time, IDC estimates that the retail prepaid market will grow 7.4% yearly on average until 2016, outpacing the post-paid market's growth of 1.3% yearly on average.
"Apple isn't satisfied with 23% of the smartphone market," argues Matthew Panzarino, writing at The Next Web. "In fact, the evidence is mounting that it wants to dominate it much in the way that it did the market for MP3 players with the iPod." And prepaid customers are the pathway to dominance in an otherwise saturated market.
Perhaps the "flexibility" that prepaid users are said to want is actually better understood as a greater sense of control over what they spend for mobile services, allowing them to judge and even change the value of these services in a more immediate way than postpaid users do.
It's a high-stakes market, Panzarino argues.
"If Apple can leverage its economies of scale to offer affordable iPhones to the prepaid market, even two-year-old models, it has the potential to shift the balance of market-share-power away from Android, just as it [already] owns the lion's share of [smartphone] profits," Panzarino writes.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnwwEmail: [email protected]Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed
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