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Apple patents show mirror, ceramic chassis looks

Apple has patented some super-strong, translucent finishes for housing electronic devices, building on speculation that an upcoming iPhone will have a reflective finish.

An Apple patent application published on Tuesday depicts an “optically reflective layer,” creating a metallic-looking housing for a laptop or phone.

According to the patent, a reflective layer would be combined with the surface of a translucent layer, “wherein the metal flakes provide multiple light reflective surfaces such that the composite structure has an appearance of an anodized metal.”

The finished product makes the casing appear smooth and continuous, rather than being broken up by antennas or sensors, because the material doesn’t interfere with electronic signals.

A separate patent application, published in March, shows a smooth, matte ceramic finish for what looks like an iPhone. The patent describes a ceramic surface made from materials including zirconia or sapphire and potentially transparent, blasted at high pressure with a harder substance, such as diamond or sapphire.

“Compared to other optically clear materials, such as polycarbonate, hard ceramic materials like zirconia offer improved strength and fracture toughness,” the patent says. “However, as previously mentioned, zirconia may be difficult to polish using traditional techniques.”

Source: U.S. Patent Office filings

To be sure, many patented technologies never hit the consumer market, and many are often incremental improvements on long-standing projects. Apple has been working on ceramic phone chassis since at least 2006, patents show, but the only major ceramic finish that’s been released is the ceramic Apple Watch. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the patents.

Apple’s anodized aluminum finishes have become industry standards. But Apple introduced a special shiny color, Jet Black, with the iPhone 7, that accounted for 30 percent to 35 percent of preorders of the new phones, KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo estimated, according to 9to5Mac.

Kuo has speculated that to extend the popular glossy finish to other colors and models, Apple will need to look at a different manufacturing process, since the jet black finish scratches easily and is hard to make. For instance, Apple has invested $200 million in innovative glass products by Corning.

In addition to aesthetic advantages, innovations like wireless charging and bendable screens are have opened new possibilities for the form of mobile phones.

One Apple leaker set bloggers a flutter this week with a rumor that a new “mirror” color might be released for the iPhone (though that design appeared to have antennae lines, unlike some of the patents.)

Whether or not Apple releases a new finish for the next iPhone, there are high expectations for the form factor to impress.

Firms such as Credit Suisse, Citi
and Instinet
have all predicted that the next iPhone’s new features could drive a “supercycle.” But Deutsche Bank on Tuesday expressed some doubt.

“The market has become overly optimistic on iPhone’s potential sales into the upcoming iPhone launch this fall,” the bank said in a research note.

— CNBC’s Todd Haselton contributed to this report.

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