The future is ceramic: Apple patents zirconia iPhones and Watches

Future iPhones might use zirconia
The iPhone 14 is just around the corner, and we already seem to know some spicy details about next year's iPhone 15 already, but there's always the chance that details about the future of iPhones are already flying around us in plain sight. That's right, we may have just got our first tip at what the future of the iPhone design holds, at least as far as design comes and goes.

According to a new patent obtained by The Forbes, Apple could be exploring ceramics as a possible body material for its future iPhones and Apple Watches. In particular, the patent in question calls for "Electronic Devices with Textured Zirconia-Based Components", which would have a matte finish. 

As per the patent images, zirconia could be used for the back plate of the iPhone, with a circular centerpiece reserved for the Apple logo. The matte finish would correspond with a Pro/Pro Max model, and would definitely suit their more premium role in Apple's lineup.

What's zirconia, exactly?

Why would Apple be exploring ceramics, zirconia in particular, instead of sticking with glass and metal, the de facto standard materials used in the industry right now? See, the industry is always trying to one-up itself with sturdier and lighter materials that can also survive an unfortunate rendezvous with the ground, while also remaining visually pristine by preventing scratches. 

With those requirements in mind, zirconia ticks all the boxes with just one serious downside, really. Zirconia, or zirconium dioxide, is regarded as the most durable monolithic ceramic, with high hardness, strength, toughness, and chemical corrosion resistance. Zirconia is also used as a diamond substitute in jewellery. 

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It's stronger than most common metal alloys and offsets the effects or regular wear and tear. It's actually one of the dentist industry's favorite materials when it comes to artificial crowns, because it has so many physical advantages over other materials. It has also dethroned aluminum oxide as the material of choice for artificial hip joints and other implants. 

What's the downside we mentioned earlier? Well, given its much superior quality in comparison with most metal alloys and glass that usually make up the exterior of a modern smartphone, zirconia is noticeably more expensive to produce, which could be another catalyst for a future iPhone price increase... Still, there's the possibility that Apple might not use pure zirconia, but instead add it to aluminum or steel alloys, which would still greatly improve their mechanical properties and overall resistance. 

And that's exactly what Apple hints at the patent description, stating that "zirconia-based component may be formed of a ceramic such as a partially stabilized zirconia ceramic or an alumina toughened zirconia ceramic".

Ceramics as the future of phones

Ceramics and phones have certainly met before. Xiaomi and Samsung, in particular, have produced devices with ceramic bodies, the Xiaomi Mi Mix 4 and the Galaxy S10+ Performance Edition, respectively. Ceramic is still regarded as a premium material when it comes to phones, which it certainly is considering its superb properties, and is yet to achieve a more prominent presence on the phone market. Things are a bit different on the smartwatch market, where watchmakers regularly experiment with such high-quality premium materials, but no smartwatch so far has done that on a scale as large as the Apple Watch.

It would make sense for Apple to want to differentiate its regular iPhones from the Pro models even further in the future, and adopting ceramic could be one of the ways to achieve such a spread. Surely, other manufacturers would follow suit and consider using the material more prominently in their device lineups.

And let's not forget that ceramic and iPhones are not exactly strangers. Both the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 series both come with Ceramic Shield displays, offering up to 4X better drop-resistance in comparison with previous iPhones.

In the end of the day, it's merely just one patent, so there's a pretty high chance that Apple never actually decides to utilize it, with a ceramic iPhone remaining a pipe dream of some, this author included. 

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