In front of Lucy Edwards, a blind UK-based journalist and broadcaster, has been challenging to maintain social distancing in public during the height of the pandemic. That’s why she tried Human Detectiona feature in the iPhone’s Magnifier app that uses the iPhone 12 Pro‘s and 13 Pro‘s lidar sensor to detect when others are around.
“I’ll have to get used to it but I’m really excited to be back in control,” Edwards told a BBC video from 2020 documenting her experience.
Lidaror light detection and range, is just one example of how the technology inside the iphone has evolved over the past 15 years. When the first iPhone was launched, on June 29, 2007, it had a 3.5-inch screen that would be considered miniscule by today’s standards and a single 2-megapixel camera. Now Apple’s most advanced phones are equipped with triple rear cameras that are advanced enough to shooting moviessensors that help people like Edwards navigate the world, and powerful chips with billions of transistors†
The iPhone often served as a catalyst for the technologies introduced into it, be it digital assistant Siri, mobile payments or wireless charging, and helped drive the evolution of how we live our mobile lives. But in the future, the most important part of the iPhone may be everything around it. That’s according to analysts who have observed the overall trends of the mobile industry and Apple’s strategy.
In the short term, we will likely see incremental improvements such as higher quality cameras and giant screens. But in the next decade, the iPhone could become a hub for smart glasses and other devices. AirPods† Apple Watches and CarPlay-compatible vehicles may just be the beginning. The core elements of the iPhone, such as the display and charging systems, are also expected to receive a significant boost.
“The next quest for the smartphone is to figure out what it will connect to next,” said Runar Bjørhovde, an analyst at market research firm Canalys. “Because the smartphone hasn’t necessarily reached its potential yet, but as a standalone device I think the smartphone is getting closer and closer to the edge.”
Your iPhone at the center of everything
There is a lot of speculation about what the future holds after the smartphone. The resounding consensus seems to be smart glasses, with companies like meta† snap and google all are working on their own version of high-tech eyewear.
Apple is no exception; reports from Bloomberg indicate that the iPhone maker could debut a mixed reality headset this or next year that supports augmented and virtual reality technologies. A pair of AR-powered smart glasses could arrive later this decade, the report said.
What does this have to do with the iPhone? Possibly everything. Even Apple Headphones expected to function as a standalone device, the apps and services that run on it will likely come from the iPhone.
Think of the Apple Watch. It doesn’t need a nearby iPhone to function, but a big part of its appeal is its ability to sync closely with Apple’s phone. Many of the Apple Watch’s notifications are also tied to accounts and apps set up on the iPhone.
Whether it’s a smart headset, the Apple WatchAirPods or HomeKit devices, analysts expect the phone to remain center stage.
“The phone will be the anchor,” said Gene Munster, managing partner of technology investment firm Loup Ventures and a longtime Apple analyst.
But it’s not all about connecting with new personal tech gadgets. Apple is gradually turning the iPhone into a viable wallet replacement, weave it even tighter in the non-digital aspects of our lives.
Apple has made a lot of progress in this area over the past year by rolling out new features such as digital IDs for Apple Wallet and Tap to pay, which turns the iPhone into a contactless payment terminal for merchants without additional hardware. Apple just announced too Apple Pay Laterwhich allows Apple Pay users to split a purchase into four equal installments paid over the course of six weeks.
“Obviously there’s a lot of momentum in the financial services industry at Apple, and I think we’re going to see further progress there,” said Nick Maynard, head of research at Juniper Research.
Better lidar, more advanced AI for better spatial awareness
Making informed guesses about Apple’s overall direction for the iPhone is certainly easier than pinpointing specific changes that might come. But analysts have some ideas based on the seeds Apple has planted in today’s iPhones.
Lidar is likely to remain important as the company moves deeper into augmented reality. Apple added lidar to iPhone 12 Pro in 2020 to improve AR app performance, enable new camera tricks, and facilitate accessibility features like the aforementioned Human Detection† The technology measures distance by determining how long it takes for light to bounce off an object and bounce back.
Still, the iPhone’s current lidar sensors may not be advanced enough to support Apple’s… augmented reality ambitions realised, Munster said.
“In particular, what needs to happen is that real-world mapping needs to be more accurate,” said Munster, whose company researches topics such as augmented reality, autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. “And until that happens, AR won’t really happen.”
Lidar is improving the iPhone’s depth-sensing skills, but it’s still up to the phone’s processor to make sense of all that data. Apple has used artificial intelligence — one of Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzwords in recent years — to give the iPhone and other products more context about users and their environment.
Again, you can look to the Apple Watch to see this approach at work. Apple’s smartwatch uses artificial intelligence and data collected from the sensors for tasks such as tracking your sleep and noticing when you wash your hands.
Hanish Bhatia, a senior analyst for Counterpoint Research, gave a hypothetical example of how AI improvements could one day manifest themselves in upcoming iPhones. He envisions a future where Apple’s smartphone can observe a person’s habits to understand whether the primary user of the phone or a family member is using the device.
“The way you use your phone, what angle your smartphone is tilted at… Do you press with a certain pressure, or do you just tap it with your fingernails or something?” he said as an example. “These are all different types of behavior that are very unique to a user.”
Bhatia’s example is speculative and does not reflect Apple’s actual plans. But with advances in AI and technologies like lidar and ultra-wideband giving the iPhone more spatial awareness makes it easy to imagine a scenario like this.
Displays and charging technology could get a big change
Perhaps one of the biggest questions surrounding Apple’s future smartphone plans is whether the company will ever make a foldable iPhone. Samsung, Apple’s biggest rival in mobile devices, has already launched several generations of phones with flexible designs. Motorola, Huawei and Microsoft have all followed suit, and Google is rumor has it that he is working on a bendable Pixel† Shipments of foldable smartphones are said to have increased by 264.3% in 2021 from 2020, according to The International Data Corporation†
But experts like Munster and Maynard are skeptical about whether Apple will take a similar approach. Although the tech giant has archived patents for mobile devices with flexible screens, those signups aren’t always indicative of Apple’s plans. Sales of foldable phones are growing, but shipments still pale in comparison to regular smartphones. (Research firm IDC estimates that 7.1 million foldable phones will be shipped by 2021, compared to 362.4 million phones shipped in just the fourth quarter of last year† And then there’s the question whether foldable devices bring something really new or meaningful to the smartphone experience.
There are also challenges in creating a real glass screen that is foldable, Munster says. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip has a glass screen, but that glass is also combined with “a special material” to “achieve a consistent hardness”. CNET reported in 2020†
“The piece missing from my perspective is how” [Apple] would really do,” Munster said.
The charging experience of the iPhone probably also needs an upgrade. Between USB-C, Lightning, and MagSafe, it’s no exaggeration to say Apple’s charging options are complicated. Maynard believes pressure from the European Union and US Senators could mean that a move to USB-C could be the future of the iPhone.
“I suspect that if a vendor were to launch a completely portless system, it would probably be Apple,” Maynard said, referring to Apple’s decision to remove headphone jack from iphone in 2016†
Wireless charging has also been a focus for Apple in recent years, further supporting the case for a port-free iPhone. There are relatively new MagSafe chargers from Apple and many CarPlay compatible vehicles too support wireless connections† Apple also has patented wireless charging systems that would be built right into MacBooks, allowing Apple’s laptops to charge iPhones, Apple Watches, and iPads. The iPad Pro’s Smart Connector also provides a quick and easy way to attach portless accessories to the Apple tablet.
“The number of systems that should actually have 100% cable is decreasing,” Maynard said.
Otherwise, analysts expect routine camera upgrades in the near future. Munster says there’s room for improvement in the iPhone’s front-facing camera, while Bhatia expects Apple to improve the screen size and camera quality to distinguish the regular iPhones from the Pro iPhones.
It’s impossible to know what’s next for the iPhone without Apple’s input. But experts seem to be certain of one thing: Apple is laying the groundwork for the iPhone’s future today. Current iPhone features, such as Apple’s lidar-powered accessibility tools intended to help people like Edwards, could give a glimpse of what lies ahead.
“Everything we can see they’ve done in recent years is a good indication of what’s to come,” Bjørhovde said. “Because a lot of what I think they’re doing is preparing themselves for the systems they want to integrate the iPhone into in the coming years.”