Apple’s smartphone is turning 15. Experts say technologies like lidar and AI will define its future.
Lucy Edwards, a blind UK-based journalist and broadcaster, found it difficult to maintain a social distance in public during the height of the pandemic. That’s why she tried the iPhone’s People Detection feature, which uses the iPhone 12 Pro and 13 Pro’s lidar sensor to detect when others are nearby.
“I’m going to have to get used to it, but I’m really excited that I can be in control again,” Edwards said in a BBC video from 2020 documenting her experience.
Lidar, or light detection and ranging, is just one example of how the technology inside the iPhone has evolved in the last 15 years. When the first iPhone launched, on June 29, 2007, it had a 3.5-inch screen that would be considered minuscule 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 to shoot films, sensors 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 within, whether it’s 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 might be everything around it. That’s according to analysts who’ve observed the mobile industry’s general trends and Apple’s strategy.
In the short term, we’re likely to see incremental improvements like higher quality cameras and giant displays. But over the next decade, the iPhone could evolve into a hub for smart glasses and other devices. AirPods, Apple Watches and CarPlay-enabled vehicles may be just the start. The iPhone’s core elements, like its display and charging systems, are also expected to get a significant boost.
“The next quest for the smartphone is to figure out what it will connect to next,” said Runar Bjørhovde, an analyst with market research firm Canalys. “Because the smartphone has not 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’s plenty of speculation about what’s next after the smartphone. The resounding consensus seems to be smart glasses, with companies like Meta, Snap and Google all working on their own version of high-tech spectacles.
Apple is no exception; reports from Bloomberg indicate that the iPhone maker could debut a mixed reality headset this year or next that supports augmented and virtual reality technologies. A pair of AR-powered smart glasses could arrive later this decade, according to the report.
So what does this have to do with the iPhone? Possibly everything. Even though Apple’s headset is expected to function as a standalone device, the apps and services it runs would likely stem from the iPhone.
Think of the Apple Watch. It doesn’t need a nearby iPhone to function, but a large part of its appeal involves its ability to sync closely with Apple’s phone. Many of the Apple Watch’s notifications are also tied to accounts and apps that were set up on the iPhone.
Whether it’s a smart headset, the Apple Watch, AirPods or HomeKit-enabled appliances, analysts expect the phone to remain at the center.
“The phone will be the anchor,” said Gene Munster, managing partner for tech investment firm Loup Ventures and a longtime Apple analyst.
But it isn’t just about connecting to new personal tech gadgets. Apple is gradually turning the iPhone into a viable replacement for the wallet, weaving it even more tightly into the nondigital aspects of our lives.
Apple has made a lot of progress on this front over the past year by rolling out new features like 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 Later, which lets Apple Pay users split a purchase into four equal installments paid over the course of six weeks.
“It’s clear that there’s a lot of momentum within financial services with Apple, and I think we will see further advancements 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 general direction for the iPhone is certainly easier than pinpointing specific changes that might be coming. But analysts have some ideas based on the seeds Apple has planted in current iPhones.
Lidar will likely continue to be important as the company pushes more deeply into augmented reality. Apple added lidar on the iPhone 12 Pro in 2020 to boost the performance of AR apps, enable new camera tricks and facilitate accessibility features like the aforementioned People Detection. The technology measures distance by determining how long it takes for light to reflect off an object and bounce back.
Yet the iPhone’s current lidar sensors might not be sophisticated enough to bring Apple’s augmented reality ambitions to fruition, said Munster.
“Specifically what needs to happen is the mapping of the real world needs to be more accurate,” said Munster, whose firm conducts research on topics like 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 leaned into 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 to the Apple Watch to see this approach at work. Apple’s smartwatch uses artificial intelligence and data gathered from its sensors for tasks such as tracking your sleep and noticing when you’re washing your hands. Hanish Bhatia, a senior analyst for Counterpoint Research, provided a hypothetical example of how AI improvements could one day manifest in upcoming iPhones. He envisions a future in which Apple’s smartphone can observe a person’s habits to understand whether the phone’s primary user or a family member may be using the device.
“The way you use your phone, at what angle your smartphone is tilted … Do you press with a particular pressure, or do you just tap it with your nails or something like that?” he said as an example. “All of these are different types of behaviors which are very unique to a user.”
Bhatia’s example is speculative and doesn’t reflect Apple’s actual plans. But with advancements in AI and technologies like lidar and ultra wideband giving the iPhone more spatial awareness, it’s easy to imagine a scenario like this.
Displays and charging tech could get 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 have all followed suit, and Google is rumored to be working on a bendable Pixel. Shipments of foldable smartphones are said to have increased by 264.3% in 2021 compared with 2020, according to The International Data Corporation.
But experts like Munster and Maynard are skeptical about whether Apple will take a similar approach. Though the tech giant has filed patents for mobile devices with flexible displays, those filings aren’t always indicative of Apple’s plans. Sales of foldable phones have been growing, but shipments still pale in comparison with regular smartphones. (Research firm IDC estimates that 7.1 million foldable phones were shipped in 2021 compared with 362.4 million phones shipped in just the fourth quarter of last year). And then there’s the question of whether foldable devices bring anything truly new or meaningful to the smartphone experience.
There are also challenges with creating a true glass screen that’s foldable, says Munster. 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 that’s missing from my perspective is how [Apple] would actually do it,” Munster said.