Apple has created a new composite material that can blend in naturally with metal. The company may use the newly-patented technology to improve the iPhone's design by removing the plastic lines seen on the smartphone's back surface.
Metal is an appealing material to use when designing mobile devices, but it has drawbacks. It's not friendly to radio frequency signals and can interfere with a wireless device's ability to connect to cellular or other networks.
Device makers have figured out how to get around this.
If you look at the back of the iPhone 5 or 5s, you'll notice only about 75% of the phone's back surface is metal. There are glass plates at the top and bottom to allow wireless signals passage. Apple altered its design with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, both of which have plastic lines that run back and forth along the back surface. These plastic lines are what allow the wireless signals to pass through the device. (HTC uses a similar design with its One line of smartphones.)
Apple clearly thinks those plastic lines are unsightly.
"Plastic surfaces and glass surfaces have different visual qualities than metallic surfaces, which result in a visible break in the metallic surface of the housing," explained Apple in its patent filing. "This visible break can detract from the smooth and continuous look of the metallic housing."
Naturally, Apple figured out how to remove the plastic lines. The company was recently awarded a patent for a composite that looks and feels like anodized metal. The material will allow Apple to blend metal and non-metal sections of its device enclosures so they have a uniform appearance without impacting radio frequency performance.
Apple fans are hardly complaining about the looks of its newest iPhones, which have sold in the tens of millions of units since their September 2014 debut.
What's perhaps more noteworthy is how Apple might use this material in other devices. For example, it mentions how metal can't be used for touchpads, touch screens, or other capacitive sensors. The new composite could help Apple improve upon its tablets and laptops, in addition to the iPhone.
Apple is looking at other possibilities for adjusting how it designs mobile devices. The company is said to be exploring how to develop a single-chip solution for combining touchscreen and display drivers. The integrated drivers could also include fingerprint sensors. This would let Apple nix the home button found on every iPhone since 2007 in favor of a clean-faced design. Together, these could let Apple further streamline the iPhone's footprint.
Apple often patents technologies that never make it to its final designs, and the company has not stated any intent to use these advancements in future products.