What’s Up With Apple and Liquidmetal Technologies?

This is interesting: The Baltimore Sun says that Apple has entered into “an agreement” with a company called Liquidmetal Technologies. They make patented metal alloys that sport properties similar to ceramics and plastics, which means the metals they make can do some interesting things. By “interesting” I mean that these alloys can outperform steel and titanium in a variety of ways and can be molded and processed like plastics.

Big whoop, right?

Well, yeah, it is a big whoop. Watch the ball bouncing kinetic energy demonstration  to see just how different Liquidmetal’s metals are. These alloys are already being used in bleeding edge designs and technologies in various markets, and now Apple is interested.

Before walk away thinking, “OK, Apple’s next iPhone will bounce back into your hand, unscathed, when dropped. Cool!” I implore you to think outside the…er, bounce.

Take a look at Apple’s current design metaphor, almost everything they make revolves around their new unibody hull, where the body of the device is carved out of a single piece of metal. Macbook Pros have a unibody, so does the iPad, and now the Mac mini.

Do you see a pattern here?

Right now, every unibody chassis has to be machined, and machining, even at the volumes that Apple produces, cost money.
Now, what if, instead using machine bits, Apple could create its unibody bodies using molds and Liquidmetal alloys? They would have the technology to make the new molded chassises better, lighter, stronger, and more resilient than before. And it wouldn’t cost $6 million dollars.

That could mean less expensive Macbooks, iPads, and Mac minis (oh my!), but likely it would mean bigger profits for Apple.

Yeah, you can see that happening, right? Well, put on your tinfoil beanie folks, cuz here’s a wrinkle you might not have thought of.

What if Apple decided that it wanted to go toe to toe against current and future PCs on everything including price? What if Apple devised a deviously simple scheme to become the greenest PC maker on the planet, and, while doing so, make it harder for users to leave the protective glow of Apple Shangri La?

Here’s where the tinfoil beanie comes in: What if Apple decided to offer users hardware upgrades to the existing unibody devices? Users would bring in their device to an Apple Store or send it to Apple via a prepaid mailer, and get back the latest and greatest Apple innards.

The logic for this is surprisingly sound. All of those unibody devices Apple has been selling don’t need to change when Apple pumps up the internals. Apple controls the whole thing from mouse to monitor. If there’s any computer maker who could pull something like that off and be successful it would be Apple. It has the brick and mortar infrastructure, the supply lines, and the expertise.

The benefits would be phenomenal. New product designs could occur in five year cycles, saving money. Longer new product testing cycles would mean near bulletproof hardware. Apple could lead the industry in recycling old devices. They could reduce the cost of processing, shipping, packaging, and more.

Imagine Apple offering a new internal hardware upgrade. You walk into an Apple Store, pick the type of upgrade you want, then buy the upgrade for 1/4 less than what you’d pay for a “new” computer. An Apple rep takes your MacBook, pops out the keyboard and underlying guts, pops out the display, plops in the new guts and display while you watch, fires up the updated MacBook and insure all your stuff made the transition intact, and 10 minutes later you walk out with a familiar friend on the outside with new speedy guts on the inside.

The likelihood of this happening is a bit more than remote, but it would sure set the PC industry on its ear if it did. It’s more likely that Apple will be happy with the savings it realizes from using molded unibodies versus machined one.

Maybe it’s not such a wild idea after all.