Another year, another iPhone with minimal changes. Virtually identical to the 2017 design except for the flat edges, the iPhone 12 that Apple recently announced doesn’t surprise. It pleases, but it doesn’t dazzle. 5G and a series of back magnets, named MagSafe, complete the highlights of a device that will sell well, but that won’t do anything to push the envelope.
Is there anything else Apple can do with the iPhone of the future? Of course: a high-frequency display, more and better cameras, eliminate “the notch”, resuscitate Touch ID… all iterative improvements. Fun for some, boring for most.
Apple reached its peak sales for iPhone in 2017 and financial analysts predict that 2020 will see a new peak driven by the higher number of customers who haven’t upgraded since then, when iPhone X came out. It will be interesting to see if this prediction becomes true amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has left a big part of the world in severe economic hardship.
Over the years, Apple has been criticized for how they take existing technology and call it a “re-invention”. What Apple does best is extending adoption of mature technologies by improving the user experience and making them accessible. Touch ID was a great example of this; fingerprint scanners were old tech until Apple made them truly popular, with a solution that was easy to set up and fast to use.
Confusing invention with innovation is where the problem lays. Even if Apple did not invent the critical technology it employs, it’s innovating when it finds a way of packing it in a product that is easy and fun to use. The original iPhone did this with touch screens, the iPhone 5S did it with fingerprint sensors, and the iPhone X did it with face scanners. Those were, arguably, the only truly innovative iPhones.
The new iPhone 12 is buying time for Apple, since its 5G antennas will not be actively useful until carriers deploy a proper 5G network; users won’t be able to experience the high speeds that Apple touted. This means a longer life for those customers who upgrade only every few years, but a disappointment for those who upgrade this holiday season using 5G as the main reason. The A14 chip will also extend the iPhone 12’s relevance, since it is the first Apple chip built with 5 nanometer processor technology.
For the next 4 years, the iPhone will see identical body design, a 120Hz display, a four-camera module, a reduced notch that allows for even slimmer bezels leading to an edge-to-edge screen with Touch ID embedded on the power button or under the screen, maybe even adoption of USB-C. All these “revolutionary” improvements will be boringly scattered throughout multiple iPhone releases. In parallel Apple is already hard at work, prototyping with incipient technologies, trying to find a fine balance between proven stability, manufacturing cost and public demand.
So what new technology is today taking its first baby steps? Foldable screens. Apple is waiting for foldable screens to mature, to fail and improve, to test the market, to find the right materials. Other companies, like Samsung, are willing to fearlessly spearhead the effort by flooding the market with different form factors; trial and error is a common process in the tech world, but Apple is not one for that type of experimentation. For Apple it’s all about a waiting game followed by a last mile of good marketing. The Cupertino company is an expert at playing that game.
Although it’s not a guarantee that foldable displays will be ready for Apple’s consumption anytime soon, efforts like the Galaxy Fold 2 prove that the technology is being improved as we speak. In a few more years, issues like the use of fragile materials in outer layers will have been solved, and patents like the one Apple presented earlier this month show that the company is eager to implement a successful crossover between iPhone and iPad. As we approach 2030 foldable devices will have become far more common, making space for scenarios like having a phone on your glasses or earpiece and a tablet folded in your pocket.
The current evolution of foldable displays seems to align perfectly with a milestone that Apple will cross towards the end of the decade: the 20th anniversary of the iPhone. I believe Apple’s take in the foldable segment will become the iPhone 20, expected to arrive around the year 2027. The same way the iPhone X celebrated 10 years of iPhone with its first almost-edge-to-edge screen, rounded corners and face recognition, it’s probable that Apple will have a big surprise in store for the device that commemorates 20 years since Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.
I can imagine the presentation of “a new iPad” in 2027, where a new screen size makes for a slightly more rectangular ultra-thin tablet with almost invisible edges. A presentation that ends with a mind-blown audience when Tim Cook folds that new iPad in half, revealing what in reality is the new iPhone 20.
Until then, there’s enough people who will continue welcoming Apple’s iterative updates, and plenty more who will yearn for an exciting change. The company will continue thriving through its push on services, waiting for the right moment to sell us a not-so-new technology with a shiny coat. We just need to wait 7 more years for the iPhone to be fun again.
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