I’ve got some bad news for folks who are expecting the next iPhone – widely predicted to be launching next month – to be a total ground-up redesign of the iconic smartphone. It won’t be.
But I’ve also got some good news: It doesn’t need to be.
Take a look at these photos pulled together by Chinese repair shop iLab. They tell a story of an iPhone that is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Surprised? Don’t be. This, for the foreseeable future is going to be Apple’s approach to their existing products.
Here’s why I think Apple will be “doubling down” – to employ an over-used expression – on their established formulas instead of ushering in completely new devices.
If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it
The first iPhone was a surprise. Not just to the industry but to Apple as well. They knew they had created something that was different and unique, but the degree to which consumers started rabidly buying up the iPhone was a shock – even the iPod, Apple’s most successful product in terms of sales, had never enjoyed this degree of enthusiasm.
After that, the course was set. Apple’s belief in the power of an all-touchscreen device and the versatility of downloadable apps had been vindicated by consumer demand. From here on in, the challenge was to find ways to improve on that formula, without disrupting what had become the hallmarks of iPhone’s design language.
Faster chips, better screens, a sleeker case design, better software, improved cameras… each and every part of the iPhone has undergone incremental improvements while maintaining an experience that would be as familiar to an owner of a first generation device as it would to someone whose first iPhone was the 4S.
Especially when you consider that a) the iPhone 4 and 4S have been ridiculously successful despite being identical on the outside, and b) nearly every Android phone on the market is simply a variation on Apple’s design, what would compel Apple to rethink their most profitable product along dramatically different new lines?
Just Enough To Make You Want One
These photos have already garnered criticism amongst Apple die-hards. They feel the design isn’t revolutionary enough, given how similar it looks to the current iPhone. But by now, these people should know that Apple prefers to tweak successful designs instead of reinventing them. Here’s how the next iPhone will offer up improvements over the current model:
– Slightly bigger screen. Apple already has one of the best mobile screens on the planet, so the trick will be to give it more real-estate without compromising the measurements of the phone itself which Apple spent a great deal of time and money developing. You’ll notice that the home button now has a little less breathing room above and below it, and the FaceTime camera has been relocated above the ear-piece speaker grille from its current side-car location. These changes, plus a slight lengthening of the phone’s body itself could yield a small but nonetheless noticeable increase in overall screen real estate. The current size is 3.5″ diagonal. A new iPhone could hit 3.9-4.0″ with the re-jigged design.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Apple manages to bump the specs of the screen too. Better contrast, better brightness, better off-angle viewing? All likely. It doesn’t take a lot to make a screen better when compared to an earlier model. When Apple released the iPad 2, they didn’t even mention that the screen was better than the first iPad – yet to anyone looking at it, it was obvious that they had made some improvements.
– 4G LTE. 4G, or LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the latest standard in high-speed data connectivity for mobile phones. Where supported by carriers, it enabled speeds of up to 150Mbps which is significant leap over the previous 3G standard. As such, this one is the most obvious feature for the next iPhone. The new iPad already has it, and given the increasingly wide-spread availability of the new high-speed wireless standard, it’s time for the iPhone to get the new technology too.
– Bigger, longer-lasting battery. Increasing the size of the case doesn’t just allow for a bigger screen, it means a bigger space for the battery too. And if the next iPhone is going to have LTE, it will need a bigger battery. LTE is fairly power-hungry technology and presumably Apple doesn’t want battery life to suffer. So while the next iPhone may last longer between charges if you restrict it to 3G, running LTE will probably result in the same life you’re used to now.
– NFC. NFC or Near Field Communication is a relatively new technology which lets devices communicate with one another over very short distances, without using WiFi or Bluetooth. In mobile phones, NFC can be used to let people “tap to share” (e.g. photos or web links) or “tap to connect” (instead of needing to configure a Bluetooth speaker – just tap it), but the biggest feature of NFC is its ability to enable mobile wallet applications. This is how you can pay for purchases using nothing but your smartphone at retailers that can accept NFC payments. NFC on the next iPhone might be a long-shot, especially given that the technology has so far been very slow to be adopted at retail in North America. However, it is progressing and there’s no question that if Apple wants to play in the digital wallet space as they undoubtedly do, NFC is pretty much mandatory.
– Smaller, possibly mag-safe-based dock connector. There have been far too may rumours pointing to this: The new iPhone will absolutely have a new, smaller dock connector. Yes, that will mean that all existing docks and accessories will now require adapters in order to work with the next iPhone, but the 30-pin dock connector is now 10 years old and wireless technologies like Bluetooth and AirPlay have made it largely unnecessary for anything other than charging. A smaller connector also means they can now move the audio-jack to the bottom of the phone.
– Audio jack on the bottom. Why does this even matter? Well, for folks who never use the jack, it doesn’t matter at all. But those who do will have noticed that it is kind of inconvenient to stick your iPhone in your pocket with the bottom of the phone facing down. Not only do you have to flip the phone around when you pull it out, but it’s much harder to reach for the home button quickly. And given the importance Apple has placed on Siri, being able to grab that home button when you’re on the go is definitely a benefit.
– A little thinner. The newest Android phones from HTC and Samsung have put an emphasis on ever thinner dimensions. The next iPhone will lose a few millimetres too. Take a close look at the photos above. They clearly show that the metal sides (which double as the phone’s antennas) will be bevelled and the front and back surfaces will sit flush to the edge. The current design is 9.3mm thick, with at least a millimetre or two of front and back surface extending beyond the metal rim. The new iPhone could easily come in at 7mm or less. Given that the world record holder, the Oppo Finder comes in at an anorexic 6.65mm, 7mm seems realistic for a new iPhone.
– Another spec bump on the processor, possibly to quad-core, and more memory. This will be mostly to keep pace with the rest of the industry and because faster chips means more powerful applications – the life-blood of the iPhone post-sale revenue.
Am I convinced that these photos are 100% what the new iPhone will look like? No. There are a few details that don’t seem right:
– The power/wake button at the top looks like it has almost no height to it at all, which would make it difficult to press.
– In picture 6, it looks as though the front face of the phone starts flush with the metal sides at the top of the phone but then progressively ramps away from the sides as it meets the bottom edge. That definitely seems out of place. It may be that the folks who assembled this mockup didn’t fit the pieces together quite right.
– There are visible seams where the top and bottom pieces of the phone meet the back plate. Given that Apple went to great lengths to make the current design nearly seamless, I can’t imagine they would now be ok with seams. But this could easily be a pre-production mockup, with the final product getting a much smoother finish.
– There is a strange, small hole sitting between the LED light and the rear camera lens. It could be a mic, and I’d place bets that’s what it is, but why is it there? The current design doesn’t employ such a visible mic so it’s hard to imagine why the new design calls for it to be so prominent.
These reservations aside, I think we are looking at the next iPhone. It’s a design that is in keeping with Apple doing what they do best: Give owners of an iPhone 4 or older model a strong reason to upgrade once they’re free of their contract, while not making people who just bought an iPhone 4S feel like they’re the proud owners of obsolete technology. This iterative, evolutionary approach to their product development can be seen across Apple’s line of devices and the next iPhone will follow this model.
Now, in case you’re sitting there feeling glum that Apple won’t be surprising and delighting you with a new, magical and revolutionary product come the fall, don’t fret just yet.
There’s still plenty of reason to think that Apple will finally make good on its much-rumoured move into the HDTV space, plus we keep getting hints of a new, smaller iPad model. This may yet shape up to be one of Apple’s most interesting years.