WWDC: So, how is Apple's Liquidmetal thing shaping up?

Apple seems set to thrill and possibly delight us at WWDC next week -- but there are hints it is closer to discussing Liquidmetal, a technology for which it holds an exclusive license.

Perpetual exclusivity

Apple took a "perpetual, exclusive license" to use Liquidmetal in consumer electronic products in 2010. It's a non-crystalline material that's 1.5 times harder than stainless steel and 2.5 times stronger than titanium alloy but can be cast like glass or plastic.

This means you can make whatever shape you want to make. And news Apple has patented a way to make things using both Liquidmetal and Sapphire-augmented glass displays hints at something -- imagine an iWatch or iPhone made this way….

I'm not saying Apple will say anything on this at WWDC. But earlier news Apple has extended its exclusive use deal through to 2015 is notable, if only because the only Liquidmetal thing Apple's shipped is the SIM card ejector tool, apparently.

Under the deal, Apple shares intellectual property with Crucible Intellectual Property, a wholly owned subsidiary of Liquidmetal Technologies. Importantly, Apple can annually renew its exclusive rights for the rest of time if it wants, the agreement suggests.

What's the object?

There was talk Apple may make Liquidmetal MacBooks, but the expense of the substance may have prevented that. But that cost is about to fall.

You see, while many noticed Apple had reached a new deal with Crucible, they didn't notice Liquidmetal had managed to reach a better deal with Visser Precision Cast (VPS). VPS was previously the exclusive manufacturer of the substance, but Liquidmetal had complained it charged too much for making it.

Liquidmetal now has the rights to: "…contract with manufacturers of its choosing, and it will retain exclusive rights to any technology that Liquidmetal develops after the date of the agreement."

That's interesting, because since that deal was reached, the USPTO has published its patent filing. The Apple patent was originally filed six years ago.

As it stands, Apple has the exclusive right to use a substance no one else can use in a consumer electronics product and its partner (Liquidmetal) can have that substance made wherever it likes.

Despite the inevitable fall in production costs, it's way too early to call. Not only have there been no whispers from anyone in the supply chain who may be creating the material, but in 2012 Liquidmetal inventor, Atakan Peker said:

"Apple was still likely 3-5 years away from using his invention in devices on a large scale."

At that time, there was no "suitable manufacturing infrastructure yet to take full advantage of this alloy technology," Peker said, warning it would cost Apple up to $500m to make Liquidmetal products.

Imitation impossible

However, Apple's R&D spending is at its highest yet, it has the sapphire/Liquidmetal patent, and has been developing the technology since 2010. Perhaps we would have heard more chatter about this, but this stuff is incredibly proprietary, so potential manufacturers could be keeping a lid on things -- particularly given Apple's track record for leaks regarding important product releases.

We know Apple CEO Tim Cook is unwilling to let Apple be the ideas workshop of the world, and a move to use materials no one else can use would make its solutions hard to emulate. After all, how do you imitate products when you can't get the parts?

I've a feeling we may learn more soon. Will it be at WWDC? Perhaps not, but it's certainly a story that may benefit from connecting the dots

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