Sonny Dickson tweeted a photo of what looks like a schematic of the new iPhone, which I will refer to as iPhone 8, specifically the largest most premium 5.8-inch iPhone 8, in this article. The supposed iPhone 8 schematic shows a couple of different design elements from iPhone 7s.
There are two cutouts that are of particular interest. One is related to the camera: the two-lens cutout and LED flash are aligned vertically. Not such a big deal in my opinion, but I wonder if there are any advantages of positioning the two lenses vertically when it comes to machine learning-based bokeh generation.
The other cutout that peaks my interest is round, and underneath the Apple logo. That round cutout seems to be located right in the middle, height wise and width wise, of the back of iPhone 8. If the schematic is real, and that’s a big if, and if that cutout is for the home button / Touch ID, Apple is embarking on a wholely new home button / Touch ID user experience significantly different from all previous generations of iPhones.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing things differently, as long as the user experience doesn’t suffer too much for too long. And you don’t want to change too many things all at once. Regarding iPhone users many of us are still struggling to get used to not having a 3.5-mm audio jack. We get dongles; we get Bluetooth earphones, but none are as simple as connecting a set of headphones we already have. We all get used to new things but when we are used to doing something a certain way the new can get frustrating because it requires change in our thoughts and actions, both of which can take considerable time and effort. For some of us change comes easy, but for others change can be frustrating.
Our productivity takes a dive in the short term too, but if the new thing is designed better than the old thing productivity should eventually improve to a level unreachable before the new thing. Maybe the new home button location on the back is such a new thing. Maybe not. But ergonomically it makes sense to me: when we hold our smartphones our index fingers whether left or right naturally and automatically nestles into about where the cutout is shown in the schematic.
Or perhaps Apple is separating the home button and Touch ID. Keep the home button in the front and move Touch ID to the back. The home button can be both touch and force sensitive while Touch ID simply reads fingerprints. There are times when I want to press only the home button without activating Touch ID. This need is somewhat mitigated by a new feature that automatically turns on the display when iPhone thinks I want to take a look at the screen; it’s a nice feature borrowed from Apple Watch. Separating Touch ID from the home button could be one explanation for the rear circular cutout. But the only sure thing is that we will have to wait and see.
Let’s assume Apple is transitioning away from IPS LCDs to OLED displays on its next iPhones. It might seem Apple doesn’t have a lot of experience with integrating OLED displays into devices, but that’s not completely the case. Apple Watch uses an OLED display and so does the 2016 TouchBar-equipped MacBook Pro. Granted they are not smartphone OLED displays. So Apple has some experience, but not as much as say Samsung. Another area where Apple doesn’t have a lot of experience is working with Samsung’s display team in developing new technology and solutions. When it comes to displays Apple has worked mostly with LG Display to push the envelope further. Again, assuming Apple is going OLED in the next iPhone or one of the next iPhones, the question then becomes: Is Apple having difficulties integrating fingerprint sensing and force sensing into/onto the OLED display? Looks like it.
Apple has patents when it comes to this. Back in October of 2016, AppleInsider reported Apple was awarded a patent that allows fingerprint sensing through displays: US Patent No. 9,460,332. The patent if successfully implemented can replace the physical home button with a virtual one. Perhaps Apple is experiencing technical challenges with integrating a virtual Touch ID that also senses force. Earlier in 2016 Apple was also granted US Patent No. 20060007222 for an “integrated sensing display” that “includes display elements integrated with image sensing elements” (source: The Mac Observer via DISPLAYBLOG). But patents are one thing, building real products based on those patents is another.
On April 12th of this year, AppleInsider cited analyst Timothy Arcuri of Cowen and Company stating potential yield issues for iPhone 8’s “under-glass” fingerprint sensor solution by Apple’s in-house AuthenTec. Note: Melbourne, Florida-based AuthenTec was purchased by Apple in 2012 for US$356 million (source: Reuters). According to Arcuri Apple is unwilling to use a solution provided by a third party.
Apple’s AuthenTec isn’t the only company trying to develop fingerprint sensors that can work underneath the screen. LG Innotek announced in May 2016 that it developed a new fingerprint sensor that fits into a 0.01-inch (0.03 mm) space cut into the underside of a smartphone cover glass (source: The Korea Times via The Verge). A circular or rectangular fingerprint sensor button becomes unnecessary allowing for a more seamless design.
Synaptics also introduced its Natural ID FS9100 optical fingerprint sensors late last year. The FS9100 sensors can scan fingerprints through 1mm-thick cover glass. But neither solution is something Apple can use for its iPhone 8’s supposedly all-screen design.
According to The Korea Herald a South Korea-based biometric sensor company CrucialTec announced that it had patented a technology allowing the installation of a fingerprint sensor underneath a smartphone display panel:
Touch screens embedded with fingerprint sensors will allow users to authenticate their identity by simply touching the smartphone display.
This might be the solution Apple is seeking to mass manufacture, but Apple is unwilling to work with third parties for its under-the-screen Touch ID fingerprint reader; it is after all an extremely sensitive area of the iPhone.
NEW IS HARD
It takes guts, an unwillingness to accept failure, tremendous grit, etc. to do things no one has done before, even if it is merely integrating parts that already exist. The original iPhone was born through that process. I’m rooting for all the Apple engineers trying to make this happen. But even if they don’t succeed this time I’m certain a solution will be developed in the future.
As for the 5.8-inch iPhone 8 schematic with what looks like a home button cutout in the back, I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all if that means the OLED screen in the front is really seamless.