Forget Gorilla Glass. Apple has its own patented method of affixing a sapphire substrate to a touch screen. According to a report on the Chinese language Apple Daily blog (translated via Google and Apple Insider), Apple’s OEM partner Hon Hai/Foxconn Technology Group has succeeded in making 100 prototypes of the large-screen iPhone 6 with a super-hard “sapphire substrate” that serves as “a surface protective screen of the iPhone.”
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Looking at this manufacturing advance in light of the report from The Wall Street Journal last Friday about Apple aggressively pursuing mobile payment technology and the Cowen and Company investor’s note last Wednesday that said that the next version of iOS will introduce ”key software innovations” that will take advantage of iBeacon, Touch ID and Passbook “as part of a push into new services with mobile payments,” I think there is a case for payments to fuel another Apple growth episode. Cupertino has successfully evaded entropy for many years by introducing major new product lines that provide the growth to keep Apple’s overall S-curve from flattening.
Here’s how this scenario works. I will make two assumptions. First, that the convenience and (relative) security of Touch ID is an important part of Apple’s mobile payment solution. Second, that the sapphire covering of the Touch ID sensor is a key and patently defensible feature of Apple’s fingerprint scanning technology. If we run this thought experiment we see Touch ID enabled iOS devices (led by the iPhone) providing an order of magnitude better checkout experience than anything else widely available. The combination of less time waiting on line and a significant reduction in the risk of Target-style point of sale data theft—and the social status conferred on those such enabled (think priority lines at airport checkin)—will be a big hit with consumers and prompt higher adoption rates for Apple products.
The significance of the sapphire coating goes beyond screen protection. If the conductive properties of sapphire are necessary for Touch ID, then a full screen so protected could enable a fingerprint recognition sensor to be placed beneath the screen instead of in the home button. This would be useful if Apple were to decide to forego the physical home button at some point. Some iPhone 6 concepts (for instance #AFPL member Martin Hajek) show Apple achieving a larger screen in the same form factor as the current iPhones by pushing the screen edge-to-edge on the sides and significantly reducing the size of the top and bottom “bumpers” by removing the home button.
The elusive iWatch could have a role in all of this as well. Knowing that Apple can not only apply sapphire to an iPhone touchscreen but also to flexible touchscreens, raises the possibility that this wearable could someday include a Touch ID sensor. Go the extra mile and imagine that this iWatch could also be compatible with non iOS devices and you have a formula, following the iTunes model, where Apple could command the leading share of mobile payments worldwide for many years.
Given Apple’s intense interest in sapphire and the fact that the only real fact that Tim Cook divulged in has ABC Good Morning America interview with David Muir last week was “a huge investment in Arizona” for “the sapphire,” it is hard not to connect the dots with Touch ID and mobile payments. The electronic wallet has been the holy grail of mobile computing and it is intriguing to think that Apple may have it within its grasp.
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