Why A Gold iPhone 5S Actually Makes Sense

Full disclosure: We’ve been seeing the gold iPhone rumours for weeks now but have largely been brushing them aside. Fake Apple rumours are as easy to come by as tangled EarPod cords this close to a new product launch, and this one in particular seemed too outlandish, too… tacky. But gold iPhone reports have reached that saturation point — even AllThingsD is confirming — where they can’t be ignored anymore. Especially considering how much sense it all makes.

Gold Pieces

Patient Zero for the gold iPhone rumour appears to be an obscure Japanese parts shop called Moumantai, which posted the following image of a purported gold iPhone 5S nano-SIM tray:

The leak was easy enough to dismiss; Apple parts are frequently aped by third parties, and this was back in April, well before the iPhone rumour mill started up in earnest. And, again, a gold iPhone seemed like too extreme a departure.

It was easy to dismiss, and so people dismissed it, just as they dismissed a June report from sometimes-reliable (they were the first to say the iPad mini would be called that) Japanese blog Macotakara that a gold iPhone was en route. Then again, it seems like Macotakara may have just been going off of a BGR report that showed the same leaked gold nano-SIM tray as before.

See? Not much to go on. Until August came around.

On August 8th, a third-party parts supplier called Luna Commerce published the following images of components apparently built for a “champagne”-coloured iPhone:

Again, third-party suppliers are notoriously unreliable; these could be knock-off parts in anticipation of a gold iPhone, or just a publicity grab. As might this gold back casing, posted by French site MacBoutic:

Component leaks, the ones that turn out to be accurate, have a momentum to them. They trickle, then they flood. Right now, with the gold iPhone, we’re somewhere in between. But parts are just part of the equation.

Where your ears really start to perk up on Apple rumours are when people with excellent Apple track records start weighing in. That’s worth more than any number of easily faked parts. And this past week, that chatter has escalated to the point where you can’t ignore it anymore. Rene Ritchie of iMore — who was more on top of last year’s iPhone and iPad mini release than anybody — suggested last week that he’d heard that a gold iPhone was coming from various sources. MG Siegler, whom it should be noted currently works for competitor Google Ventures, has described the gold iPhone as a certainty.

And then, just now, AllThingsD has confirmed that Apple will in fact sell a gold iPhone. It doesn’t get any more concrete than that, short of an Apple announcement.

So it seems incredibly likely that a gold iPhone will definitely appear on Sept. 10th alongside the budget iPhone 5c. And when you consider Apple’s past — and future — it also starts to make perfect sense.

All That Doesn’t Glitter

There’s a sense that a gold iPhone would be too extreme a departure for Apple, a company that’s held fast to its black and white iDichotomy for as long as anyone can remember. That’s false. In fact, an injection of colour is precisely what Apple would do at a time like this.

When the iPhone 5 was released, the overwhelming criticism was that it was boring. And it’s true, it was. But it was boring in a way that worked distinctly to Apple’s advantage. It was a departure from the iPhone 4/4S, but in a way that it was still very recognisably an iPhone. That’s important when you’re selling a smartphone as status symbol.

If the iPhone 5 was boring, the iPhone 5S will put you in a coma. By all accounts — and by pure logic, given Apple’s obsession with supply chain efficiencies — it will look exactly the same as the iPhone 5. It will probably add a fingerprint scanner, a feature not immediately visible and not likely to be used by most of Apple’s customers. Otherwise, it will by outward appearances be the exact same phone.

That’s a problem, if you’re Apple, and not one solved by an infusion of the cheaper, colourful iPhone 5c. An iPhone 5S in a new colour though? That’s a clear and present way to show that you’ve got the best, the latest, the most expensive. In an age when smartphones are increasingly commoditised, a new iPhone is one of the few ways to stand out in a crowd. Apple knows this. Or at least, desperately hopes that it’s still true.

It happened with the iPod touch. It happened with the iPod. It happened with desktop Macs. And it’ll happen with the iPhone.

But Why Gold?

So: A new colour, sure. That makes perfect sense. But gold? Surely Apple has better taste than that. Right? Perhaps not surprisingly, wrong.

Let’s start with precedent. We think of Apple as having an aesthetic beyond reproach, but they’re more than capable of the rare misfire. A company that’s capable of unleashing this iMac on the world is capable of anything:

Even beyond that, though, Apple’s dallied very specifically with gold before. If you blinked you might have missed it, but for a brief period the original iPod mini was offered in a colour much like the one we might expect to see from the gold iPhone.

There are two useful takeaways from the gold iPod mini. The first is that it’s not gold in the Scrooge McDuckian sense. It might more charitably be described as champagne. Which is still not to say it’s particularly attractive, but hey.

The second takeaway is that the gold iPod mini was yanked from shelves earlier than its compatriots, and that the colour never again appeared in an Apple product. In other words: No one bought it.

But a lot has changed since 2004, and the iPhone is not the iPod mini.

Assuming we’re correct that Apple has decided that it needs to breathe new life into the iPhone line — but at minimal risk to itself — it turns out that gold is a perfectly natural choice from an efficiency standpoint. As iMore explains:

According to our own Ally Kazmucha, who’s no stranger to the process, gold is among the easiest colours to anodize onto an iPhone. It involves simple chemical reaction, with the possible addition of dye depending on the exact colour they want to produce.

So! A gold iPhone can be achieved without a tremendous amount of strain on Apple’s supply chain. That’s a start. But even more important might be that a gold iPhone would be targeting an entirely different set of buyers.

Wagons East

The fact is, if Apple’s making a gold iPhone — which, again, is still in doubt! — it doesn’t care if you buy one. Not unless you happen to live in the most populous country in the world. The gold iPhone, if it exists, is Apple’s love letter to China.

Apple’s had some success in China over the last several years, but its influence is waning. In July, the company reported (PDF) that its revenues from China had fallen 14 per cent year over year, and nearly by half between Q2 and Q3 of this year. Why the drop? According to Simon Cousins, CEO of China-focused PR and communications company Illuminant, it’s lost its cachet.

“Most Chinese customers who would desire an iPhone already have one,” explained Cousins, “and many have moved onto the Galaxy Note” and other phablet-type devices. Samsung has nearly 20 per cent of China’s smartphone market, while Apple is lingering at less than 5 per cent. The biggest market in the world, and they’re barely registering.

In fact, the success Apple has had in China has been almost in spite of itself; black and white are generally colours to avoid there as they seem overly funereal. Novelty matters nearly as much as status. The iPhone is many things, but it is no longer novel, and it is only black and white.

Gold, though? According to Cousins, “there’s no other colour you can choose.”

That’s because while many urban Chinese consumers might — as we may here — see a gold iPhone as tacky or nouveau riche, those people already have iPhones. Or have at least considered them. But, as Cousins told us, there’s a huge untapped market for Apple that would find gold incredibly appealing:

“A ton of different colours have different meanings at different times of the year, but nothing trumps gold as a symbol of wealth and privilege. I would think that Apple’s looking at first-time iPhone users… in rural or remote areas, in smaller cities.”

For hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers who may not have considered an iPhone before, a gold iPhone 5S would offer a compelling combination of novelty and prestige. If the more affordable iPhone 5c doesn’t get their attention, surely this would.

Waiting Game

So does a gold iPhone 5S make sense? Sure! At least, it doesn’t make any less sense than other recent Apple rumours that have panned out. It seems like the right time to introduce a new colour. Gold is practical both from a manufacturing and sales standpoint. And uglier things have come out of the Cupertino braintrust without too much fallout.

What’s important to remember about the gold iPhone 5 is that it doesn’t matter what you think of it. It’s not for you. It’s for Apple, and its best chance at domination in one of the only parts of the world that’s managed to spurn its advances so far.

Picture: Shutterstock/Lucy Baldwin