The future of the iPhone

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wearable iPhone concept
Will a future iPhone replace your Apple Watch?
Photo: ConceptsiPhone

iPhone turns 10 The iPhone’s success has been nothing short of spectacular. With more than 1 billion units sold as of June 2016, rival consumer electronics companies can only dream of building a product that popular.

It’s not easy to foresee how the iPhone will evolve in the future. Some things are obvious — like faster processors, more advanced cameras, and even better displays — but we must look beyond these to get a sense of Apple’s biggest ambitions. Here’s some of the many ways the iPhone might get better, stronger and faster in the next 10 years.

The future of the iPhone

iPhone 8 concept
Imagining the iPhone of the future.
Photo: Gabor Balogh

Augmented reality

In the near future, the iPhone will deliver a whole new world of augmented and virtual reality experiences. We’re already getting a taste of what will come with ARKit, the new platform Apple unveiled during its most recent Worldwide Developers Conference.

The technology lets iPhone users place virtual objects in the real world. You can use it to plan a home renovation, to build 3D models on your coffee table, to measure almost anything, and to play games in which the characters roam the floor beneath your feet.

And this is just a glimpse of what’s to come. Later on, there will be even more spectacular uses for augmented reality. Baked into a set of Apple glasses, it could display text messages, turn-by-turn directions, and your to-do list right in front of you as you walk down the street.

It could allow you to perform instant Google searches without even pulling a phone out of your pocket. You might play mini-games as you walk around the supermarket choosing your groceries. And that’s just the tip of the AR icebberg: The video below from Hyper-Reality gives us a glimpse at the future of AR.

ARKit gives the iPhone Microsoft HoloLens-style capabilities, without the clunky (and expensive) headset. What’s more, developers say Apple’s platform is much easier to build for, which means it’s more likely to take off and make augmented reality mainstream.

Apple is “really excited about” AR, said Tim Cook during an appearance on CNBC’s Mad Money in May. The company might be a little late to the game, but in typical Apple fashion, it has plans to score the winning touchdown.

Machine learning

Apple is also stepping up its machine learning and artificial intelligence efforts. Enhancements coming in iOS 11 help close the gap between Siri and rivals like the Google Assistant, and they extend far beyond language translation and more natural voices.

Whether you like it or not, AI is here to stay — and it’s only going to get better. The iPhone of the future will likely have the ability to recognize what you look like, and plan your entire schedule based on data gathered from emails and other sources.

It will have the ability to identify and even diagnose medical conditions using Health records and clever sensors built into your iPhone and Apple Watch. It will help you manage conditions like diabetes, and keep you healthy with the perfect diet plan.

Apple Health
Future iPhones could tell you all you need to know about your health.
Photo: Graham Bower/Cult of Mac

In keeping with Apple’s accessibility ambitions, your iPhone might even be able to read sign language and translate it into text or spoken words.

Combined with HomeKit, it will recognize what time you wake up in the morning or get home from work at night, then adjust the temperature in your home, turn on the lights, and preheat the oven for your dinner.

Google is using machine learning for some incredibly interesting things that could change our lives in the future. It can pair you with the perfect job vacancy, analyze images to make searching and editing simple, and translate languages like never before.

The company has developed engines that can turn scruffy doodles into works of art or beat the world’s best players at games like Go. And you can bet Apple is doing similar things behind the scenes that will come to fruition in future iPhones and other devices.

Apple’s Core ML is a framework that makes it easy for any developer to integrate machine learning into apps with just “a few lines of code,” according to Apple. In the future, almost every app we use on our iPhones will be smart.

We’ll have camera apps that identify who or what is in your shot. Music players that can pick the perfect playlist based on your mood or recent events in your calendar. Banking apps that can automatically adjust your budget based on recent and upcoming spends. And more.

Better iPhone displays

Apple likes to boast about its iPhone displays, but the truth is, they could be a lot better — and much more efficient. The LCD technology used in current iPhones pales in comparison to the OLED panels used by the likes of Samsung, and it seems like Apple is aware of that.

For the iPhone 8, Apple is expected to finally make the switch. It is reported to have ordered millions of OLED displays from Samsung that should offer more vibrant colors, deeper blacks and increased brightness. They should deliver better battery life, too.

Unlike LCDs, which require a separate backlight, OLED displays light individual pixels. Black pixels don’t light up at all, which means that when you’re viewing dark images, or using an app with a black interface, the display saps a lot less power than an LCD display would.

wraparound iPhone
A concept iPhone with a wraparound display.
Photo: ConceptsiPhone

Although OLED displays are expected to be exclusive to the iPhone 8 this year — mostly because Apple simply cannot obtain enough of them — it is claimed that every iPhone will have one by 2019. They’re likely to be used in other Apple products, too.

Beyond OLED, Apple could adopt technologies like MicroLED. They’re even more energy efficient, even brighter, and they can be thinner and lighter than LCD or OLED panels, allowing for more compact devices.

Apple has also shown an interest in displays that can provide haptic feedback. We already have a taste of this with 3D Touch and the Taptic Engine, but future iPhone displays could allow you to “feel” key clicks as you type or the texture of onscreen objects.

Better iPhone materials

We can expect the exterior of the iPhone to evolve, too. It has changed significantly over the last decade as Apple switched between stainless steel, plastic and aluminum. In the future, it is likely to adopt more robust materials that don’t scratch or dent as easily.

We’ve been waiting for iPhones with sapphire crystal displays that are nearly impossible to scratch during everyday use. They’ve yet to arrive, and it’s unlikely we’ll see that this year, but it’s a change that makes perfect sense. Rivals like HTC already make sapphire phones.

Another material that could make its way to a future iPhone is ceramic. Apple uses zirconia ceramic for the latest Apple Watch Edition to make it almost impervious to scratches, and the material possesses other advantages that would make it ideal for a future iPhone.

ceramic iPhone
A ceramic iPhone would look spectacular.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Zirconia ceramic, unlike standard ceramic, is said to be significantly better at dissipating heat than the aluminum unibodies Apple currently uses. It doesn’t block radio signals like metal, either, so Wi-Fi, cellular and other signals can pass right through without antenna bands.

What’s more, ceramic can be pigmented to almost any color without the need for surface paint. That means future devices could be just as colorful as the iPhone 5c, without the tacky plastic shell that scuffs and chips easily.

Apple might also consider titanium. It’s up to 45 percent lighter than steel, yet twice as strong as aluminum. However, its significantly increased price tag could make it too expensive for a device that sells as many units as the iPhone.

Long-lasting batteries

We all want better smartphone batteries that don’t require charging every single night, and aren’t susceptible to exploding like lithium-ion batteries. Sadly, battery technology doesn’t evolve nearly as quickly as the other components inside our iPhones.

There are other options out there for the future, however.

A company called SolidEnergy already built a battery that stores twice as much energy as an iPhone battery, yet measures half the size. It uses lithium-metal foil, which stores more lithium ions, as opposed to graphite.

Intelligent Energy is working on fuel cell technology in hopes that it can deliver smartphone batteries that last up to seven days between charges. Not only is that a huge improvement other lithium-ion battery tech, but it requires no cables. You simply swap in a new fuel cell.

iPhone case
Charging your iPhone could become a thing of the past.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Sakti3 developed a new kind of solid-state battery technology that can also last up to twice as long as lithium cells. It uses a solid lithium electrode instead of liquid chemicals, and the technology is so good, it is backed by Dyson.

The problem with these new technologies is that they’re either not ready yet, or they simply cannot be produced quickly enough in large enough quantities to meet the demand of millions of iPhone fans. But you can be sure Apple has its eye on them — and others — for the future.

Truly wireless charging

In the meantime, Apple will almost certainly improve the charging experience by going wireless — a feature that could make its debut this year with iPhone 8. And yes, Apple’s wireless charging solution should be a lot better than that of its rivals.

Not only has Apple developed its own inductive charging methods, but it is said to be working with companies like Energous to finally deliver revolutionary new technology that would allow the iPhone — and other mobile devices — to charge over the air within a set field.

iPhone wireless charging
How a future iPhone could look with wireless charging.
Photo: Ivo Marić and Tomislav Rastovac

No longer will you need to place your iPhone down and avoid touching it while it tops up. You’ll simple be able to sit in a certain area of your home and continue using your device as normal while its battery gets charged completely wirelessly.

It’s the kind of feature Apple would be keen to bring to iPhone. It’s revolutionary, and it’s vastly better than any charging solution available today.

New and improved iPhone security

Another one of Apple’s ambitions is to embed its Touch ID scanner beneath the iPhone’s display. This would allow it to eliminate the physical Home button altogether and make room for the larger, edge-to-edge display mentioned earlier.

This is another change we expected for the iPhone 8 at one point, but more recent reports warn that the technology may not be ready in time for this year’s refresh. Qualcomm just showcased its fingerprint-reading displays, but it isn’t exactly Apple’s best friend right now.

Apple could pursue other biometric security solutions. Rivals like Samsung are proving that iris scanners are ready for prime time, with fast and accurate results. The South Korean company insists iris scanning is also more secure than fingerprint readers.

Iris scanning, along with facial recognition using clever infrared sensors, is another feature that has been rumored for iPhone 8. Leaked components have shown new sensors alongside the handset’s front-facing FaceTime camera that could confirm this move.

Faster networking

Apple has been famously slow to adopt new cellular and wireless networking technologies for the iPhone. The very first model launched without 3G support, while we had to wait for the iPhone 5 to get our hands on super-speedy 4G.

We might have to wait for faster technologies in the future, then — but they will come. Right around the corner is 5G, which offers bandwidth of over 1Gbps — five times that of 4G. It will likely be even faster than any broadband connection you’ve ever had at home.

A feature-length movie weighing in at 8GB will download in around six seconds, compared to around seven minutes over 4G. Latency will be greatly reduced, allowing content to begin streaming the second you press play and enabling even greater online gaming experiences.

As for Wi-Fi, that’s going to get better, too. Just like cellular, new standards will bring greater bandwidth and reduced latency, while new mobile modems will allow for things like tri-band connections, so you can take advantage of multiple signals for faster data transfers.

Those new modems and chips will also be more power-efficient, so despite delivering data faster than ever before, they’ll have a reduced impact on your iPhone’s battery life.

Lots, lots more!

Apple’s growing catalog of patent filings also provides hints at its plans for future iPhones.

The company has patented flexible displays that wrap all the way around the device. Samsung has already developed screens that could make this possible, but Apple must wait until they can be manufactured in the millions before it can use them.

When the time comes, we could see iPhones you can wear just like your Apple Watch. The concept below imagines a device that fits snugly around your wrist, meaning your iPhone would be on hand whenever you needed it.

iWatch concept
This is one way Apple could take advantage of flexible displays.
Photo: Federico Ciccarese

Another concept imagines an iPhone with a flexible display that wraps around the back of your hand.

Concept iPhone
A concept iPhone that holds your hand.
Photo: Federico Ciccarese

Slightly more outlandish ideas include built-in gaming joysticks and smoke detectors, airbags that could prevent an iPhone’s display from breaking during a fall, and a system for drying your handset after it gets wet.

Patents are never a guarantee of things to come, of course, but they prove Apple has big dreams for the iPhone.

Will the iPhone survive another decade?

Like the personal computer, we’ll be relying on smartphones for decades to come. They’ll change significantly during that time, but they will undoubtedly continue to play an important role. Most of us cannot imagine life without one.

Certain technologies could replace the smartphone one day, like smartwatches, futuristic glasses and contact lenses, and other wearables. But for now — and for a long while to come — they’ll remain smartphone supplements until they’re more capable (and a lot less intrusive).

So long as Apple can continue to innovate and remain a strong player in the smartphone market, we can expect the iPhone to survive another decade and more. Yes, the iPhone has fallen behind competitors in some respects, but Apple has the ideas, resources and know-how to change that.