For Lucy Edwards, a blind journalist and broadcaster from the United Kingdom, maintaining social distance in public during the height of the pandemic was a challenge. So she tried Detection People, a feature within the iPhone’s Magnifier app she uses iPhone 12 Pro‘s and 13 ProLidar sensor for detecting when others are nearby.
“I’m going to have to get used to it, but I’m really excited to be in control again,” Edwards said in a 2020 BBC video documenting her experience.
Lidaror light detection and range, is just one example of how the technology is inside iPhone evolved over the last 15 years. When the first iPhone was launched on June 29, 2007, it had a 3.5-inch screen that would be considered small by today’s standards and a single 2-megapixel camera. Now Apple’s most sophisticated phones come equipped with triple rear cameras that are advanced enough for that make moviessensors that help people like Edwards navigate the world, and powerful chips with billions of transistors.
The iPhone it has often served as a catalyst for the technologies introduced within, be it the Siri digital assistant, mobile payments or wireless charging, and has 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. This is according to analysts who have followed the general trends of the mobile industry and Apple’s strategy.
In the short term, we’ll likely see incremental improvements like higher-quality cameras and bigger screens. But over the next decade, the iPhone could evolve into a hub for smart glasses and other devices. AirPods, Apple watches and CarPlay vehicles can be just the beginning. Core elements of the iPhone, such as its screen and charging system, are expected to receive a significant boost.
“The next quest for the smartphone is to find out what it will connect to next,” said Runar Bjørhovde, an analyst at market research firm Canalys. “Because the smartphone hasn’t reached its potential yet, but as a standalone device I think the smartphone is getting closer to the edge.”
Your iPhone at the center of everything
There is a lot of speculation about what’s next after the smartphone. There seems to be a strong consensus on smart glasses, with companies like Target, Snap and Google everyone is working on their own version of high-tech glasses.
Apple is no exception; reports from Bloomberg indicate that the iPhone maker could introduce a mixed reality headset that supports augmented and virtual reality technologies this year or next. A pair of AR-powered smart glasses could arrive later this decade, according to a report.
So what does this have to do with the iPhone? Anything possible. Although Apple headphones It is expected to function as a standalone device, and the apps and services it runs would likely be derived from the iPhone.
Think Apple Watch. It doesn’t need an iPhone nearby to work, but a big part of its appeal involves its ability to sync closely with an Apple phone. Many Apple Watch notifications are also tied to accounts and apps set up on the iPhone.
Whether it’s smart headphones, Apple WatchAirPods or HomeKit devices, analysts expect the phone to remain at the center.
“The phone will be the anchor,” said Gene Munster, managing partner at technology investment firm Loup Ventures and a longtime Apple analyst.
But it’s not just about connecting to new personal tech devices. Apple is gradually turning the iPhone into a viable wallet replacement, weaving it even tighter into the non-digital aspects of our lives.
Apple has made great progress on this front in the past year by introducing 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 also just announced Apple Pay laterwhich allows Apple Pay users to split purchases into four equal installments paid over six weeks.
“There’s clearly a lot of momentum in financial services with Apple, and I think we’ll see further progress there,” said Nick Maynard, head of research for Juniper Research.
Better lidar, more advanced AI for better spatial awareness
Making educated guesses about Apple’s overall direction for iPhone is certainly easier than determining certain changes that might come. But analysts have some ideas based on the seeds Apple planted in the current iPhones.
Lidar will likely continue to be important as the company pushes deeper into augmented reality. Apple added lidar to the iPhone 12 Pro 2020 to improve the performance of AR apps, enable new camera tricks, and facilitate accessibility features as previously mentioned People detection. The technology measures distance by determining how long it takes light to bounce off an object and reflect.
However, the iPhone’s current lidar sensors may not be sophisticated enough to catch up with Apple’s augmented reality ambitions come true, Munster said.
“Specifically, what needs to happen is to make the mapping of the real world more accurate,” said Munster, whose firm conducts research on topics such as augmented reality, autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. “And until that happens, AR isn’t really going to happen.”
Lidar improves 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 relied on 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 surroundings.
Once again, you can look at the Apple Watch to see how this approach works. Apple’s smartwatch uses artificial intelligence and data gathered from its sensors for tasks such as tracking your sleep and noticing when you wash your hands.
Hanish Bhatia, senior analyst for Counterpoint Research, provided a hypothetical example of how AI improvements could one day manifest in upcoming iPhones. He envisions a future where an Apple smartphone can observe a person’s habits to understand whether the phone’s primary user or a family member might be using the device.
“The way you use your phone, at what angle your smartphone is tilted… Do you press with a certain amount of 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 the 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 broadband giving the iPhone more spatial awareness, it’s easy to imagine such a scenario.
Displays and charging technology could see a big change
Perhaps one of the biggest questions surrounding Apple’s future smartphone plans is whether the company will ever create a foldable iPhone. Samsung, Apple’s biggest rival in the mobile space, has already launched several generations of phones with flexible designs. Motorola, Huawei and Microsoft followed, and Google did rumored to be working on a bendable Pixel. Shipments of foldable smartphones will grow by 264.3% in 2021 compared to 2020 according to The International Data Corporation.
But experts like Munster and Maynard are skeptical that Apple will take a similar approach. Although the tech giant has submitted patents for mobile devices with flexible screens, those reports don’t always indicate Apple’s plans. Sales of foldable phones are growing, but shipments still pale in comparison to regular smartphones. (Research firm IDC estimates 7.1 million foldable phones shipped in 2021, compared to 362.4 million phones shipped in the fourth quarter of last year alone). And then the question arises whether foldable devices bring something really new or meaningful to the smartphone experience.
There are also challenges with creating a true collapsible glass screen, says Munster. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip has a glass screen, but that glass is also combined with a “special material” to “achieve consistent hardness,” CNET published in 2020.
“The missing piece from my perspective is how [Apple] would really do it,” Munster said.
The iPhone charging experience is probably due to the upgrade as well. Between USB-C, Lightning, and MagSafe, it’s no exaggeration to say that 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 in the iPhone’s future.
But there could be more dramatic changes in the plan. Rumors of a complete portless iPhone they’ve been swirling for years, and Maynard doesn’t think it’s completely out of the question.
“I suspect that if any vendor is going to launch a completely sportless system, it would probably be Apple,” Maynard said, citing Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack on the iPhone 2016.
Wireless charging has also been a focal point for Apple in recent years, further supporting the portless iPhone case. There are Apple’s relatively new MagSafe chargers, and many CarPlay-enabled vehicles also support wireless connections. Apple has also patented wireless charging systems that would be built directly into MacBooks, allowing Apple laptops to charge iPhones, Apple Watches and iPads. iPad Pro’s Smart Connector also provides a quick and easy way to connect accessories to your Apple tablet without a dock.
“The number of systems that actually 100% have to have cable is going down,” Maynard said.
Otherwise, analysts expect to see routine camera upgrades in the near future. Munster says there’s room to improve the iPhone’s front-facing camera, while Bhatia expects Apple to continue using the screen size and camera with a quality that distinguishes ordinary iPhones from its Pro iPhones.
It’s impossible to know what’s next for the iPhone without Apple’s input. But experts seem sure of one thing: Apple is laying the groundwork for the future of the iPhone today. Current iPhone features, such as Apple’s lidar-powered accessibility tools that are supposed to help people like Edwards, could give a hint of what lies ahead.
“Everything we can see they’ve done in the last few years is a good indication of what’s to come,” Bjørhovde said. “Because I think a lot is being set up for the systems they want to integrate the iPhone into for years to come.”