Like everyone else, we’ve been excited and confused by the never-ending wave of iPhone 5/iPhone 4S rumors. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that Apple would wait so long to introduce nothing more than a speed-bumped iPhone 4, but it’s equally hard to imagine an iPhone 5 with a glossy metal casing. For years, the issue with metal has been wireless antenna reception, since metallic iPhones, iPods, and iPods have had big black plastic compartments to let their Wi-Fi and cellular signals through. After yet another “what’s taking so long” discussion between our editors, talk shifted to an answer, and one that may have been a matter of public record the entire time.
Remember all the excitement over Apple gaining an exclusive license to use Liquidmetal alloys in electronic products? Interviewed by Cult of Mac last August, shortly after the Apple deal was revealed, Liquidmetal co-inventor Dr. Atakan Peker suggested that Apple would likely use the technology in a future iPhone. Peker specifically noted that Apple could create a case that was structural and functional, optimized for receiving radio signals and in essence serving as one big antenna. “You can build casings with functional characteristics, and the alloy’s properties as an antenna can be optimized,” Peker said back then. Are we nearing the release of a Liquidmetal iPhone?
When you really think about it, there’s seemingly no other way to build the widely mocked-up phone without incorporating the sort of large, plastic antenna that Apple has moved away from in recent iPhone and iPod designs. The fourth-generation iPod touch was able to direct wireless signals through the front glass because you don’t put your face against the touch to make phone calls—a major difference relative to the radiation and attenuation risks that go along with an iPhone. Apple’s already experimented with Liquidmetal, at the very least in SIM ejector tools (top photo), and Liquidmetal was also used to create parts of the Verizon USB727 wireless modem (pictured above), reportedly including the antenna.
It’s possible that Liquidmetal parts have been used in other Apple products that no one realized contained Liquidmetal at the time. The first known Liquidmetal part from Apple was that SIM ejector tool, but there could well have been others. Consider earlier debates over what the bodies of iPhones were actually made from. Make’s Phillip Torrone notably claimed after laser etching tests that the original iPhone’s “aluminum” back was actually “a nice plastic,” a point that was further discussed by Intomobile, which suggested that the “plastic” iPhone 3G shell may in fact have contained ceramic materials, as well. Apple never went into much detail about the bodies of the iPhones until the iPhone 4 came along. Whether or not Apple releases a Liquidmetal-backed iPhone this year—and whether or not it admits as much—remains pure speculation at this point, but if the “iPhone 5” renderings people are coming up with reflect the actual device, that’s almost certainly how it was accomplished.