This year hasn’t been a big year for smartphones. Sales are down, globally, in part because of a lack of innovation; smartphones are pretty mature right now. That doesn’t mean they’re going away, but we haven’t seen a radical new application for them since Snapchat and Uber.
Apple defined the smartphone era, and I’ll be looking for hints of what it envisions for its next act when I head to Cupertino on Sept. 12. There, we expect to see three new iPhones, possibly called the 9, the Xs, and the Xs Max. If rumors hold true, Apple will eschew visible hardware changes like in-display fingerprint sensors and pop-up cameras. Instead, the phones’ biggest step forward may be in their A12 processor, which could have up to 40 percent better graphics capabilities.
That’s the first hint. I’ll be looking to see how much those graphics capabilities go towards new augmented reality technology. Apple iOS 12 will include a new version of ARKit, and I think some capabilities are being held back to show off on the new chipset. AR is part of Apple’s potential 5G strategy. Another slab with a notch isn’t that interesting—what Apple will do in a 5G world is really interesting.
4G Phones in a 5G World
Steve Jobs defined Apple’s role in 3G and 4G, bringing first the mobile web, then mobile social networking and video chat to the masses. Now it’s Tim Cook’s world, where he’s investing in services like Apple Music, ideas like connected health, and moonshots like connected cars and augmented-reality glasses. Those are all 5G bets, which is why it’s fine they haven’t really coalesced yet.
The next big things in electronics will be enabled by the 5G networks the wireless carriers will begin to roll out at the end of this year. The wild, fun thing about this is that nobody actually knows what’s going to take off with these high-speed, low-latency, ubiquitous networks.
Having lived through the 2G, 3G, and 4G transitions, I can tell you that predictions before a network is deployed are always wrong. We thought 2G was going to be about call quality; it was about SMS. We thought 3G was going to be about video chat; it was about the web and apps. We thought 4G was going to be about laptops; it was about mobile social networking and streaming media.
That means a powerful, visionary company that controls a large platform will be able to steer 5G applications in the directions it wants to. Apple controls the biggest truly uniform mobile platform in the world. When Apple wants to go 5G, it will go 5G; Google will have to herd cats.
So if Apple pushes augmented reality apps—possibly controlled by future AirPods and AR glasses, not even necessarily by a phone—that could be a real clue to Apple’s next five years.
If Apple decides that 5G is in part about always-connected sensors that monitor your health—like the Apple Watch Series 4—that’s also a clue. Will Apple finally make an Apple Watch that doesn’t require an iPhone? 5G means networks of semi-independent, cloud-connected devices. The Watch is a key part of that vision.
Strengthening the Cloud
I also hope to hear about a much better Siri. Google understands that voice interfaces are going to be a very big deal in the 5G world, because we’re going to be dealing with a lot of screenless devices. Samsung understands that too, which is why it’s so hell-bent on forcing people to use Bixby.
One of Apple’s biases is holding Siri back: the company doesn’t like to do a lot of actual computing, versus storage, in the cloud. Apple historically acts as a hardware company, not a services company—services exist to sell hardware—but Tim Cook has been trying to turn that ship with limited success.
Part of Apple’s limitation here is virtuous: it believes that your information should be on your device, owned by you. But in the 5G world, where future AirPods may actually be your primary mobile device, cloud-connected voice interfaces that access cloud data will rule. Siri is absolutely critical there.
Apple won’t lead on 5G, because it waits for standards to settle and networks to be deployed. I expect Apple’s first 5G device to come in late 2020, potentially using Apple’s own 5G modem, which the company has been developing for years.
The iPhone Xs, as the latest slab running iOS, may not be a big shock. Don’t look at it for what it is. Look at it for what it says might be coming.