iPhone 6: Apple scrambles for 'biggest ever' launch
Production problems with super-slim screens and batteries for the iPhone 6 fail to dampen expectations
Apple is building a stockpile of up to 80 million handsets as it prepares to launch the iPhone 6 – a major upgrade to its flagship smartphone, which remains the company's most profitable product.
Analysts expect two versions of the iPhone 6, both with larger screens than the current four-inch model. The smaller of the two will extend the screen to 4.7inches, while a 5.5-inch model will take on the phone-tablet hybrids known as phablets.
Apple "is asking suppliers to manufacture between 70 million and 80 million units combined of two large-screen iPhones with 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch displays by Dec. 30", the Wall Street Journal reports, quoting "people familiar with the matter".
This compares with an initial production run of 50 to 60 million units of the iPhone 5S and 5C, which Apple launched last autumn. In the quarter to June, Apple sold 35.2 million iPhones.
Demand for the iPhone 6 is likely to be high as the new phone looks set to be a significant advance on its predecessors. Leaked images and videos suggest that, as well as a larger screen, the new phone will offer an ultra-slim seven millimetre frame and a highly scratch-resistant coating (see video, below).
But the slender construction of the new handset is causing a headache for component manufacturers, according to several reports.
The battery, which will be just 2mm thick, "is said to be causing production problems because of the fragile nature of such components," the Daily Mail reports.
And DigiTimes says the technical challenge manufacturing components for the iPhone 6 is denting the profits of parts suppliers. "Apple orders will contribute to component makers' revenues but will not help in increasing gross margins, according to supply chain makers," the website says.
However, the orders are likely to keep suppliers busy. The Wall Street Journal says that ultra-thin screens are proving difficult to build to the required standard, forcing Apple to up its orders.
"To factor in the possibility of a higher failure rate for displays," the paper says, "Apple has asked component makers to prepare for up to 120 million iPhones by year-end."
Figures released by Apple last night revealed that Apple made profits of $7.7bn between April and June this year, a little more than analysts had been predicting.
More than half of the company's $37.4bn quarterly revenue came from the iPhone, and year-on-year sales of the iPad slipped for a second successive quarter. Time attributed slowing demand for tablets to "increased competition from large-screen smartphones", but Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, defended the iPad's performance.
"iPad sales met our expectations," he said. "What's most important to us is that customers are enjoying their iPads and using them heavily."
More iPhone 6 rumours
There's no shortage of speculation about what will be included in the next iPhone, much of which seems to be based on wishful thinking:
Launch date: opinion is settling on Friday, 19 September, as the most likely date for the grand unveiling of the iPhone 6. Apple always launches products on Fridays, and it picked the equivalent Friday last year to present the iPhone 5S and 5C. Earlier this year Deutsche Telecom was caught telling customers that they could upgrade to the new handset on 19 September, although it's not clear whether this was insider knowledge or an educated guess. A Chinese advert apparently leaked over the weekend also points to a 19 September debut.
13-megapixel camera: There has been comparatively little speculation about the iPhone 6 camera, but tentative reports out today suggest that Apple may build in a 13-megapixels sensor capable of recording high-resolution 4K video. "Apple is well-known for investing millions into its camera sensor, though the company has always refrained from entering the megapixel count race because adding more megapixels tend to have an negative effect on the low-light performance," Tech Times says. But the website sounds a note of caution: "The original source comes from a Chinese web forum, which may not be the best place to find legitimate iPhone 6 leaked information."
Optical image stabilisation: MacRumors says the bigger of the two iPhone 6 models "may include camera improvements in the form of optical image stabilisation with modules produced by sensor company InvenSense". Camera performance is becoming increasingly important at the top end of the smartphone market, and analysts suggest that optical stabilisation, which reduces image blur, could help to justify a larger price tag for the 5.5-inch iPhone 6.
A Liquidmetal shell: As Apple strives to make the new handset as slim and strong as possible, some commentators have speculated that it may turn to Liquidmetal, an alloy that's stronger than aluminium. In theory that would mean the handset could be lighter and slimmer without skimping on strength or build quality, but in practice it seems unlikely. Although one of the inventors of Liquidmetal predicted two years ago that Liquidmetal cases would be possible by mid-2014, its use has so far been limited to small components.
Liquidmetal components: This is much more likely. Documents published by Apple-watching website MacRumors, suggest that the alloy could be used in buttons and switches in order to toughen up what have often proved to be weak points on previous iPhones.
A curved screen: At the end of last year Bloomberg carried a report predicting the next iPhone models would have screens that curved down at the edges. Curved screens are said to be more durable, more comfortable to use, and better suited to watching videos and playing games, according to Sky News. This would be a bold move for Apple, which usually likes to stand back and see how other phone-makers fare with new, risky technologies – and more recently a source told The Wall Street Journal that Apple has no plans to make use of curved glass. However, despite all the leaked images apparently showing the iPhone 6 with a flat screen, rumours of curved glass have resurfaced, most recently in the Daily Mirror.
Quantum dots: This is probably a technology for future handsets, not the iPhone 6. Patent filings suggest Apple is experimenting with tiny crystal semiconductors just a few thousandths of a millimetre across, which could improve the colour and sharpness of mobile screens. "The techniques Apple describes would let its screens not only show colours more accurately," Business Insider says, "but also show a wider gamut of colours." The publication had predicted in March that the quantum-dot screen may be ready this year, but no further reports of the technology have emerged.
Battery life: Mixed signals have emerged about the iPhone 6 battery life. On the positive side, analysts have pointed to iOS 8, Apple's new operating system, and its new A8 processor as evidence that the company is paying more attention to power consumption. The chip, says 9to5Mac.com "adds significant performance and efficiency enhancements in order to improve the iPhone’s battery life". On the other hand, more recent reports suggest that the slim frame of the new phone has forced Apple to adopt a battery that is just 2mm thick. Taiwanese sources suggest that the new battery has a "similar capacity" to its predecessor, which may dash hopes of significantly improved performance.
Eye-tracking: Some rumours suggested that the iPhone 5S would be eye-controlled, allowing users to scroll through pages without touching the device. When the technology failed to materialise in the last model, hopeful observers shifted their attention to the iPhone 6.
NFC: Another long-predicted feature, Near Field Communication or NFC would allow the phone to act as a payment system. Users would wave their handsets over a receiver to transfer money in shops and restaurants, or between friends. Several Android and Windows Phone devices already support NFC payments, but Apple has yet to make the leap.
Health monitors and apps: Apple has already unveiled its new operating system, iOS 8, and what we've seen so far suggests that Apple is turning its attention to health and fitness. Smartphone accessories such as the Fitbit and FuelBand have proven the demand for health-monitoring devices, and reports suggest that the iPhone 6 will be able to keep track of its owners pulse and body temperature, as well as other metrics. These features may work in conjunction with the long-awaited Apple iWatch.
More on the iPhone 6