Apple’s iPhone 7 is due out next month. According to the Wall Street Journal, PFWTMs (“people familiar with the matter”) say the new device will look pretty much the same as the iPhone 6s. The biggest change: no more headphone plug. Customers who want to listen to music or podcasts on their iPhones will need to get Bluetooth earbuds or new headphones with Lightning connectors.
Doesn’t sound like much of an innovation. (Or is it? I’ll come back to that below.) The first point to acknowledge is that if the reports are right, it would be the first time Apple has departed from its traditional two-year upgrade cycle. Redesigned iPhones typically come out in even-numbered years. 2015 saw the introduction of the iPhone 6s, a minor makeover of the previous year’s iPhone 6. So, going by the traditional schedule, the 2016 iPhone would have been a major refresh, perhaps helping to reverse this year’s slowdown in sales of iOS devices.
So, what’s going on inside Apple? And what does this portend for the future of mobile interfaces?
One interpretation is that smartphones have reached the Plateau of Near-Perfection.
Already on that plateau are products like the commercial jet airliner, which hasn’t changed much since Boeing introduced the 747 in 1970. Planes have evolved on the inside through the addition of features like all-glass cockpits and fly-by-wire software. But in essence, aircraft builders have concluded that there’s only one efficient design for an aluminum airframe riding on gas-turbine engines, and it’s the one we’ve got.
Maybe we’ve reached the equivalent point in smartphone design, where the devices already do everything we need them to do. An iPhone is an alarm clock, a camera, a pager, a game console, a compass, a map, an audio and video recorder, a phone, and a Dick Tracy two-way video link. It’s hard to imagine what new capabilities could be added to this Victorinox of gadgets.
Or maybe that’s all wrong. It could be that there’s still plenty of room for new features, but Apple is simply taking a longer breather between upgrades.
The company might be planning something splashy for 2017, the 10th anniversary of the original iPhone. According to the same PFWTMs, Apple designer Jony Ive wants to get rid of the iPhone’s bezels and use an edge-to-edge OLED screen to make the device look and act like a single sheet of smart glass. That sounds cool, but tricky. It would be understandable if it took an extra year.
But I suspect something more is going on. Yes, designing an edge-to-edge display might involve some tough hardware challenges. But my bet is that the seeming slowdown in the iPhone iteration cycle isn’t primarily a hardware issue. It’s more like a synchronization problem. Maybe, before phones can get smarter, software engineers have to get smarter.
Let me explain. What made the original iPhone so groundbreaking was a remarkable convergence of hardware and software innovation. It was the first device to feature both a phone-sized touchscreen and a new interface that made the screen intuitive and delightful to use. The combination opened up so many possibilities that app builders have now spent the better part of a decade exploring them.
We may not see another great leap in mobile technology—one that supercharges the whole category, the way the first iPhone did—until someone comes up with a similar synthesis of hardware and software innovation.
The big limitations right now aren’t on the hardware side. Microprocessors have speed to burn. Batteries last all day. Every year, phones get better displays and better cameras. With 5G broadband, wireless connections are about to get a lot faster.
No, what’s missing is an organizing idea—a new way of packaging and interacting with the information on our mobile devices. Something that will make iOS look as primitive as the operating system on a 2003 Treo or Blackberry.
And here’s my big prediction: that idea is Siri. Or rather, her future offspring. To make the next leap, Apple and its competitors need to … Next Page »