While the collective press had a bit of a freakout at yesterday's iPhone 7 announcement over dual cameras and disappearing headphone jacks, Apple's most important design innovation in a decade went completely unnoticed. The future of Apple's innovative devices could come down to two words: Zirconia ceramic.
I know what you're thinking: "That's the coolest thing I've ever heard!" Okay, you probably didn't think that. More likely, you either thought of fake diamond rings or maybe your 5th grade pottery class. Either way, the new top-end Apple Watch Edition is made out of the stuff, and it's one of the most promising advancements Apple's made in years.
What's different? On the inside? Nothing. The new Apple Watch Edition has all the same internal specs as the brand-new Apple Watch Series 2, with GPS, a new swimproof design, and an improved OLED screen. What sets this product apart is that instead of being made of aluminum or steel, it's made from a state-of-the-art ceramic material.
While you might remember your granny's delicate bone china when you think of ceramics, the opposite is true of this zirconia ceramic. According to Apple it's more than four times harder than stainless steel, lightweight, and has a finish that—unlike stainless or aluminum—won't scratch or tarnish over time. Ceramic's ace in the hole is that it's also radio transparent. All those silly-looking antenna lines on your iPhone? They're completely unnecessary with a ceramic body.
Why is radio transparency ideal for a device like an iPhone or iPad? Well, remember the iPhone 4 Antennagate? Apple had to come up with an unbelievably complex array of antennas on the iPhone 4 in order to make the phone's signature stainless steel case able to pick up cellular and WiFi signals. The antennas were so sensitive that holding the phone in a certain way could block them, because metals like aluminum and steel don't let radio waves pass through very effectively.
The other benefit is that ceramics can be dyed, without needing the complex anodization process that only slightly adjust the hue of today's iPhones. For instance, Apple's beautiful new Jet Black iPhone 7 requires a complex seven-step process just to tweak the surface of the phone. All that could be done more easily with a ceramic material, and in almost any color.
Zirconia ceramic casings have been on Apple's radar for more than a decade—longer than the iPhone itself has been around. One of the company's first patent applications relating to ceramic casing was filed way, way back in 2006.
Apple's application clearly spells out why they'd want to use this to house a phone—it lets radio waves in and out, it can be easily turned different colors, and it's tough and scratch resistant. Last year, Apple even patented its method of compressing and sintering the material into shape, while removing bubbles from the ceramic slurry.
Of course, the patents are just the first step in a long process of mastering a new material like this. The new Apple Watch proves they're at least willing to give it a shot in a real product, even if the $1,300 cost indicates they've still got some bugs to work out. But if all goes to plan, your next iPhone may not be made of metal at all.