There has long been speculation about Apple incorporating a solar panel into its products, both for environmental reasons and to boost battery-life. There have been Mobile-Solar Apple Jobs that have vanished after discovery, tons of patents, trial rumors and of course the Solar effort/expertise on Apple’s Data Centers and new Campus 2 building. This week, Seeking Alpha has a highly speculative piece by Matt Margolis suggesting that the evidence may be mounting for the iPhone 6 being the product Apple uses to bring the Solar idea to market.
Before we get too far into the speculation, it is worthwhile to note that the surface area of an iPhone would hardly be enough to keep a charge let alone recharge a phone even with the most efficient solar technology in labs today. However, all of the evidence weighed together might make you forget all of that ‘science’…
Margolis makes much of suggestions that Apple may be planning to replace Gorilla Glass with sapphire – something we’ve suggested is possible though far from certain – without explaining why he believes this makes solar more likely, other than the vague idea that it would be more protective of ‘cool stuff’ underneath. The techniques he goes on to describe would arguably be more practical with glass than with sapphire.
We don’t often cover Apple patent filings, as the company patents all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons (many of them defensive), while only a handful of the ideas make it to market. This one may stand a greater chance of making it into production than most, however, as Apple is known to be a huge fan of renewable energy.
But some of those patents go back years: there is nothing in them to give any clue as to when, if ever, the ideas might make it into products. There have also been supply chain rumors of evaluation trials, but these again date back to 2011.
Then we have job descriptions. Again, no argument from us, especially as we’re the source of two of the ones he cites. But again, Apple works on many things for years. A job listing is evidence of nothing more than interest in a field, not in definite plans to launch, and certainly not on specific timings.
Finally, we come to the one piece of evidence that may give a clue as to timescales: a reasonably large order placed by “a leading smartphone company” for $68M worth of solar cell coating equipment, delivery of which is scheduled to be completed by the end of Q2 this year.
Apple has plenty of cash to spend on lab equipment, but I have to confess that $68M’s worth of machinery does sound rather more like it’s geared to production volumes.
There is, though, no evidence that the customer is Apple. Margolis suggests that the term ‘leading’ implies it has to be Apple or Samsung, but I again think he’s reading far too much into a very loose term. Motorola, LG, HTC, Sony, Xiaomi and Huawei would all be equally viable candidates. And what if the leading smartphone company is just using the solar tech for its buildings. We know Apple and everyone else are building out solar farms at a record pace.
Does the idea make sense?
Solar panels have, until recently, been pretty inefficient. You need plenty of area and lots of sunlight in order to generate worthwhile amounts of power. Of all of Apple’s products, the iPhone offers some of the least surface area to work with. The latest generation of solar panels are a lot more efficient reaching close to 40% in the labs, but still, there’s no way that a panel the size of an iPhone screen – even the larger one we expect in the iPhone 6 – is going to power the phone on its own.
But delivering a useful boost to battery-life, an hour or so, say, would likely be feasible. Not, admittedly, if the phone spends all its time in your pocket or bag when not in use, but I can certainly envisage a situation where you know you’re getting low on power and you’d be glad of the opportunity to be able to put it out on a desk or table to help you make it through the day.
So, take a small practical benefit. Add Apple’s love of solar power. Then add the marketing spin made possible by a combination of the extra battery-life and helping to save the planet. To me, that adds up to a credible story.
Think iPhone 5s. The Touch ID sensor saves a couple of seconds entering a passcode, and a 64-bit chip in a smartphone has rather limited practical value as yet, but Apple spun both into major features that got a huge amount of media attention and were apparently responsible for the 5s being massively more successful than the 5c.
What if Apple could say leaving your iPhone 6 on your desk all day could draw enough ambient light energy to keep it from losing charge. Or what if it gave you an extra hour or two a day? Would that be worthwhile?
Will we see solar power in the iPhone 6? It’s not a certainty by any means, but it is, I would say, interesting thing to think about.