When will Apple launch the iPhone 8, and how different will it be from today’s smartphones? What about the new smartphones Apple launches in 2020 and beyond?
Here at Macworld we spend a lot of time wondering about the next generation of Apple devices (and if you share our curiosity, take a look at our iPhone 7, iPad mini 5, iPad Pro 2 and Apple Watch 2 preview articles). But sometimes it pays to take a step back and think about the longer term, and the bigger picture. Where is technology going? What does the future hold? And what will Apple’s smartphones look like in 2018, in 2020, in 2030 and beyond?
In this article we discuss some of the routes that smartphone technology could take in the coming years, starting with the iPhone 7s and the iPhone 8, which by current trends ought to appear in 2017 and 2018. As we move further into the future our predictions will by necessity become more and more speculative, and many of these paths will no doubt turn out to be blind alleys. But we’re happy to put on our future goggles and make some predictions about trends we’re expecting in the next few years. If you want to know what kind of iPhone you’ll be brandishing in the future, read on.
There’s a growing sense that at the end of 2016 Apple’s iPhone sales will again disappoint (on a relative scale, of course – it’ll still outsell its main rivals many times over) because the iPhone 7 is set for a limited set of updates and new features. But everything will change in 2017, when the iPhone 8 blows us all away with a wide and radical range of enhancements.
Making predictions about the upcoming performance of Apple stock, analysts at Credit Suisse have forecast that the iPhone 8, to be released on the iPhone’s 10-year anniversary in 2017 (skipping the ‘S’ generation in recognition of its major updates) will feature “significant innovations” such as a full-glass OLED screen, new and upgraded haptic feedback features, wireless charging and numerous major specs improvements including the camera and processor.
Kulbinder Garcha, one of the company’s analysts, was sufficiently confident about the iPhone 8’s performance to predict sales of 250 million units in fiscal 2018 (despite launching in the calendar year 2017, the iPhone 8’s sales will be reported in 2018), compared to 215 million in 2017.
Garcha may be confident, but we’re not so sure. Going three years between substantive updates to what remains by far its most profitable line in order to make a big launch match a big anniversary feels like a strange and risky strategy for Apple (we don’t subscribe to Nikkei’s theory that the company will follow a three-year cycle from now on), and with the Android sector pushing boundaries in a lot of ways this would inevitably result in accusations of stagnation – even more so than now.
iPhone 8 and beyond: When will the iPhone 7s and the iPhone 8 come out?
Before we think about new features you should expect in the iPhones of the future, let’s talk about the likely release date schedule. We expect Apple’s next batch of smartphones, the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus, to launch in the autumn of 2016: most likely September 2017.
After that point it gets harder to predict. Based on the past few years of Apple launches, the generation after that should be an S update: the iPhone 7s and the iPhone 7s Plus, launched together in autumn 2017 (with the potential of an iPhone SE 2 in spring of 2017, or moved back to launch with them in the autumn). The iPhone 8 – as well as the iPhone 8 Plus – would then finally be unveiled in September 2018.
The end of the iPhone ‘S’ convention
But it’s possible that Apple won’t continue the S generation strategy for much longer. Many of us have pointed out that it’s a risky policy, tacitly acknowledging that iPhone generations alternate between major and minor updates – when the average user hears that the new iPhone hasn’t even been considered worthy of a full version number upgrade, how likely are they to crack open the old wallet?
On this principle, therefore, we could see the iPhone 7 in autumn 2016 and the iPhone 8 the year after. At this point, nobody knows – but as soon as we hear more, we’ll update this article.
Now, what new features and tech developments can we expect in the next few generations of Apple smartphone?
iPhone 8 and beyond: Battery & power developments
Again and again the UK Tech Weekly Podcast returns to the topic of ‘peak smartphone’: the idea that the smartphone’s golden period of rapid technological advances and wide experiential differences (between one generation and the next, or between one manufacturer and another) is now over. The smartphone has become commoditised, and there are only small, iterative differences between the phone that just launched and the one you bought last year – hence less incentive to upgrade. Smartphones are now essentially ‘good enough’.
Well, maybe. Perhaps the greatest potential growth area – yet, for various counterintuitive reasons, one of the most neglected thus far – is battery life. Battery tech keeps getting better, but smartphone makers (and Apple is guilty of this more than almost anyone) keep cramming in higher-res screens and higher-power processors that use up the extra power just as quickly; or they select a slimmer albeit more efficient battery cell so they can say the phone is thinner than ever before, with the same effect.
In the next few years, we suspect, battery life is going to become more of a priority for phone makers and consumers. Partly this is because phones are now about as slim and fast as anyone could ever want; but partly it’s because some cool battery tech developments are starting to come within the reach of mobile consumer budgets.
Stacked battery cells
One persistent rumour holds that Apple will take the battery tech it developed for the original 12-inch MacBook (and retained for the 2016 version) – whereby contoured, layered battery units are stacked inside the chassis in order to take up every possible inch of space – and use these to squeeze more battery capacity inside the fixed or even reduced volume that will be available in future iPhones.
Apple could even, thanks to the new technology, make more radical changes to the overall design of the iPhone, because its engineers would no longer to base their work on a fixed battery shape. Although the smartphone is such a mature market now that it would take a brave manufacturer to change its essential form – a little like a mad microwave designer inventing one that’s spherical.
The capacity and efficiency of batteries is sure to increase over the next few years, and may do so dramatically if lithium-oxygen cells (also known as lithium-air) become a reality. As a Nature study (you’ll need to pay to read the full article) explains, Li–O2 batteries offer theoretically far higher lifetimes than the lithium-ion equivalents currently favoured in mobile devices – maybe as much as five times as much, although technological issues remain.
But we’re still thinking in terms of conventional battery principles: batteries than need to be charged up from a mains supply, and then run down, and then need to be charged up again.
A different approach is offered by technologies such as motion charging, a principle that has been used in numerous watches going back many years and was reportedlyconsidered by Apple when putting together the first Apple Watch. It uses kinetic energy from your own movements to charge up a battery cell – the traditional model would be for a wristwatch to harness the power of your arm swinging back and forth throughout the day, but similar methods have been used by wearable phone chargersthat generate sufficient power in this way to give an extra hour of life to the average phone from a mere, er, 5,000 steps.
Okay, so the tech needs improvement to achieve mass-market acceptance,and it would be better still if technology of this kind could be integrated into the body of the phone itself (it’s also vital for it to be able to collect a worthwhile amount of power from the smaller-scale movements experienced by a phone in a pocket or handbag rather than on the end of an arm). But it’s an appealingly sustainable way of collecting some of that energy you’re otherwise wasting on things like ‘moving from one place to another’ and ‘getting fit’.
A similar technology category that seems likely in the foreseeable future to supplement rather than supplant traditional battery-charging methods is solar power. Sunpartner Technologies has developed a lightweight skin/case that wraps around a mobile device and collects energy from light that falls on it. This is designed to work with both indoor and natural light, but is obviously better with the latter; in the right circumstances the tech could add some 10 to 15 percent to battery life.
The patent suggests that Apple is planning to build solar cells underneath the touchscreen on smartphones in future. The panel would recharge during the day and you wouldn’t need to plug your phone into the socket any more. Good for the planet, convenient for us. And while unlikely to appear as early as 2016’s iPhone 7, this could easily be ready for the big reveal when the iPhone 8 takes its bow in 2018.
Finally, energy-harvesting technology exists right now that can recapture energy emitted from your phone in the form of radio waves (the wasted ones, not the ones essential to communication) and then feed it back into the battery. This isn’t a long-term solution: some energy will inevitably be lost through emitted waves alone, and you’ve got all the power being used running the internal components and lighting up the screen, among other issues. But it means your battery runs down slower – 25 to 30 percent, the makers say.
These three in their present form – niche, semi-experimental, relatively costly, non-integrated, offering significant but not experience-changing increases to battery life and just generally a bit of a faff – are not enormously appealing to the average smartphone owner. But if we jump ahead 10 years, maybe less, imagine an iPhone with all three (and similar related tech) built discreetly into the case: harvesting energy from your bodily movements, from ambient light, and from the phone’s own emitted radio waves. To the extent that battery life ceases to be a concern – to the extent, perhaps, where mobile batteries become self-sustaining. What a thought.
iPhone 8 and beyond: Durable design
iPhones are that lethal combination of expensive and fragile that results in so much consumer heartache. The result is that each iPhone owner has to make their own deal with the devil: either wrapping it in a robust case, thereby masking the handsome design that they paid all that money for in the first place, or risk pavement damage every time they take the thing out of a pocket.
This may not be the case in the future.
iPhone screens are already far tougher than your average piece of glass (they’re made of a proprietary material called Gorilla Glass), but they do sometimes crack or even shatter when dropped. Sapphire screens would be more resistant still, and Apple is already using sapphire in the display of the Apple Watch: it’s possible that the company is now ready to import this material into its smartphone line-up.
Rumoured plans to rely on an Apple-backed sapphire plant in Arizona (which had the capacity to manufacture 200 million 5-inch iPhone displays per year) fell through. But more recent reports suggest that long-term Apple supplier Foxconn is gearing up to build its own sapphire plant in Taiwan at a cost of $2.6bn.
Corning, the company that makes Gorilla Glass, responded to the looming threat of sapphire glass in early 2015 with the announcement of an ultra-hardened composite material codenamed Project Phire.
James Clappin, president of Corning Glass Technologies, told investors: “We told you last year that sapphire was great for scratch performance but didn’t fare well when dropped. So we created a product that offers the same superior damage resistance and drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 with scratch resistance that approaches sapphire.”
Apple never discusses the materials it uses for iPhone screens, but it’s great news for consumers that suppliers are jousting to provide the best and most durable screen glass.
Sapphire glass is already being used on the non-Sport models of the Apple Watch, and Project Phire appears to be in a reasonably advanced state of development, but we’re getting closer to the realms of science-fiction.
Graphite, the material used in standard pencils, is made up of stacks of sheets of carbon, each one only a single atom thick. This is why it’s so good for writing: the layers naturally slide off on to the paper.
But graphene is a different matter. Graphene is what you get if you’re clever enough to isolate one of the layers in graphite, leaving you with a substance that’s effectively two-dimensional. It’s the thinnest substance known to man, about a million times thinner than a human hair, and for that matter quite possibly the strongest (it’s 100 times stronger than steel) and a phenomenally good electrical conductor – 1,000 times better than copper. Oh, and it’s virtually transparent, too.
All of which makes graphene an exciting prospect for tech manufacturers. Most obviously, it would make for a tremendously durable coating material for the screen (and would lend itself to bendable displays, too) or indeed any part of the device; but it could really appear in almost any of the sections of this article. Graphene would be a superior replacement for silicon in processor chips, or could be used to make more efficient batteries and solar cells. It’s marvellous stuff.
We’re also pleased to report that graphene is British – sort of. It was discovered by the Soviet-born physicist Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, where it continues to be studied. (Entertainingly, Geim is the only scientist so far to be awarded both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel prize.)
If you’d like to read more about graphene, I strongly recommend the New Yorker’s article on the subject.
Let’s move on from the screen and talk about new durable materials for the rest of the iPhone.
How about a bit of drop-resistance? Based on patent activity, Apple is devising a viscoelastic material that would absorb impacts. The material would cover Apple devices and make them survive drops far better. The patent could make sense in all of Apple’s mobile devices and laptops, but the iPhone is the obvious area to begin.
In January 2015 Apple was awarded a patent that suggests that the company is investigating the idea of a flexible iPhone (and we’re not talking about the Bendgate kind).
The patent suggests that, by making the iPhone flexible, Apple could unlock a new range of controls: the user could open an app by bending the device in a particular way, for example, or use the flexibility to control a game. It’s an intriguing if seemingly far-fetched concept.
Additionally, a flexible iPhone flexible ought to be more resistant to impacts and therefore more durable. But we’ll discuss a key element in the idea of a flexible iPhone – a screen that can bend without breaking – in the screen tech section.
The materials we’ve discussed so far are primarily aimed at surviving impact damage, but almost as common a problem for iPhone owners is water damage. One of our most popular articles is a tutorial explaining how to dry out an iPhone that’s got wet: it’s a distressingly common thing to happen to a device that costs several hundred pounds and contains important data.
For this reason readers and pundits frequently speculate on the possibility that future iPhones will be waterproof. Indeed, the most recent generation of iPhone models are the most waterproof yet; but we still wouldn’t be pleased if the iPhone 6s fell in a paddling pool.
Well, iPhones in the near future could be waterproof without sacrificing their looks – as is currently the case, with the best will in the world, when packing a mobile device in a waterproof case.
A patent spotted in March 2015 indicates that Apple is working to make the internal components of the iPhone waterproof using a protective coating, preventing them from being damaged in the event that liquid manages to make its way beneath the chassis.
On 17 May 2016, Apple filed a patent to have a bezel-free device. In the future, we could see a bezel-free device, which would definitely turn a few heads.
An image render and concept by Marek Weidlich shows us how the iPhone might look like if it were to have no bezels. The conceptual idea looks great and would show that Apple is still innovating in the smartphone space.
LIQUID EXPULSION FROM AN ORIFICE
And while we’re on the subject of waterproofing…
A patent published on 12 November 2015 suggests a peculiar but rather appealing solution to the waterlogging issue: a mechanism that lets an iPhone dry itself by pumping liquid out through its speaker grills.
“The embodiments described herein are directed to an acoustic module that is configured to remove all or a portion of a liquid that has accumulated within a cavity of the acoustic modules,” the patent’s summary reads.
The concept is centred around modules within the speaker cavities that can be made hydrophobic to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the charge applied to them: when liquid is detected, charges would be applied across the various modules in such a way that the liquid would be moved across the modules and ultimately expelled from the cavity.
iPhone 8 and beyond: Screen developments
The screen is an iPhone’s centrepiece and crowning glory: the medium via which you interact with your phone and your phone tells you about the world. iPhones don’t historically tend to have the best screen resolution (despite the claims made on behalf of its proprietary Retina screen rating), but they are solidly sharp and highly responsive – and occasionally Apple evens adds new features, such as 3D Touch and Night Shift.
Here’s where we see the iPhone screen heading in the next few years.
A company named Applied Materials, which already works with Apple, has dropped strong hints about ramping display demand from the company heading towards 2017, and this has been taken as evidence for the iPhone 8 incorporating an OLED screen.
“Last week Applied Materials reported an almost fourfold leap in orders for equipment to make displays, an early sign producers are retooling their manufacturing to meet Apple’s demand for a new kind of organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, screen,” reports Bloomberg.
“This is going to be sustainable growth,” said Applied Materials CEO Gary Dickerson, mysteriously. “We all know who the leader is in terms of mobile products.”
The OLED iPhone rumour has been knocking around for a while; in December 2015 it was predicted that OLED would come to the iPhone line in 2018 as a result of a partnership between Apple and Japan Display.
Note that, according to the current trajectory, 2017’s new Apple smartphones would actually be the iPhone 7s and 7s Plus, not the iPhone 8 – although many of us have been saying for years that Apple should ditch those ultra-modest ‘S’ updates.
An iPhone in the near future could come with a 3D display, according to Economic Daily News, which claims that Apple supply chain partner TPK is working on a project that relates to “naked eye 3D screen” – in other words, a 3D screen that doesn’t require glasses to see. Having to pop on a pair of 3D specs every time you use the phone would be a buzzkill.
…or hologram cells
But 3D is very 2009, isn’t it? We’d like to see Apple go a step beyond and really capture our imagination with a hologram display, able to project the screen image as a three-dimensional hologram you can view from different angles and even interact with. You might have to wait a while for this one.
At the moment about the best you can manage from a consumer smartphone is a ‘holographic effect’, based on eye-tracking technology. Not quite what we’re looking for, but still fun:
Flexible or curved screen
Apple’s Patent 9,146,590 refers to an “electronic device with wraparound display”, and describes a curved screen that allows for more screen elements to be displayed without making the device significantly bigger. (Remember that the illustrations rarely represent what the designer has in mind. In theory the display could wrap entirely around the device, or at least extend over one edge like the Note Edge.)
While the patent talks about a “flexible display assembly”, it’s important to note that this isn’t a patent for a bendable screen: the flexible portion of the display is attached to the interior surface of the curved transparent housing, which “provides a rigid support structure that prevents deformation”.
But true flexibility can’t be ruled out in the medium to long term. There are rumours, indeed, that Samsung could be making the display for the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and that these would be flexible OLED screens – ET News says that Samsung is investing billions in new factories and equipment to keep up with Apple’s display orders for its next iPhones. And bendy display proofs of concept have been common for several years.
We think such a radical step is more likely to come to fruition closer to the end of the decade, particularly for a company as cautious as Apple when it comes to updating the designs of established and successful products.
Concept illustration by Michael Shanks.
In May 2014, Apple was granted a patent for “Electronic devices with sidewall displays,” which could lead to future iPhones with displays around the sides and edges as well as on the front. The patent suggests that the sidewall displays could be an extension of the main touchscreen, and they could have interactive or touch-sensitive portions.
Apple suggests that sidewall screen space could be used to display app icons, or for slide-to-unlock functionality, music player controls, messaging readout, caller ID, system controls and more.
Samsung has actually released the Galaxy Note Edge, which has a display that wraps around one edge of the smartphone. You can find out more about the Galaxy Note Edge here.
Touch ID display
Apple is even investigating including the fingerprint scanner into the display of a smartphone or tablet, taking the technology even further. In fact, Apple filed a patent describing a Touch ID display back in January 2013.
This technology means that you could place your finger on the display to scan it, instead of the Home Button. We’re not sure if this technology was an original variation to the Home Button scanner found on the iPhone 5S, or if it’ll be combined with the Haptics & Tactile technology to remove the Home Button on a future iPhone and replace it with a virtual on-screen button.
The patent describes a touchscreen display with a fingerprint-sensing layer that could be used to introduce advanced multi-user support.
For example, Apple could use the fingerprint sensing display to only allow particular users to open certain apps. This could be useful for those with children who like to explore the iPad, for example.
Additionally, Apple could take the display even further. It could be used in conjunction with a piano app, for example, to teach users the correct finger placement for the instrument.
Accidental touchscreen inputs are so commonplace that we actually added the phrase ‘Pocket dialling’ to our tech jargon dictionary. Well, developments over the next few years could put a stop to that.
In May 2014, a patent titled “Configurable Buttons for Electronic Devices” described a touch-sensitive button designed to prevent accidental inputs. The patent covers a physical button that also has a touch sensor, which would know when a user’s finger is touching it rather than another object in a bag.
The buttons highlighted in Apple’s patent include the power, sleep, menu, volume and multipurpose buttons that are physical on most devices and therefore susceptible to accidental input.
Apple’s Touch ID home button uses similar technology to the technology described in this patent, though it’s also used as a security measure thanks to a fingerprint scanning authentication method.
iPhone 8 and beyond: Camera
The iPhone is one of the most widely used cameras in the world. What’s in store for this vital element of the iPhone of the future?
Lucky iPhone owners of the future may get their hands on a feature currently offered only by premium video cameras.
In March 2015 Apple was granted a patent for a “digital camera with light splitter”. Its project is to create a light splitter system (which for now exists only in high-end video camera) small enough to fit in an iPhone.
In essence, a light splitter system consists of a cube that splits received light into three colours: red, green and blue. The cube provides three image sensors, each of which receives one colour component. In recent iPhones, the camera system is such that its pixels capture the three component colours which end up occupying only a single image sensor; this means that they can fill only one third of the image sensor and colours are not as accurate as they could be.
The light splitter system would be a big coup for Apple. Its iPhone would be able to capture high-quality pictures with more precise colours, especially at night.
Apple seems to be keen to improve the camera capabilities of its iOS devices, and one patent published by USPTO in May 2014 suggests we could soon see iPhones that are able to capture “Super-resolution” photos thanks to optical image stabilisation, which is already a feature of the iPhone 6 Plus.
The patent describes a system that takes a series of photographs at slightly different angles and stitches them together to create a ‘super resolution’ photograph.
Apple doesn’t suggest a device would capture every photo this way. Instead, the user would have the option to turn super-resolution mode on, much like HDR and Panorama modes.
Several rumours suggest that Apple plans to introduce a feature like this with an iPhone in the near future, with reports pointing to a ‘DSLR-quality’ capability that would represent the biggest camera jump in iPhone upgrade history.
Apple iPhone camera patents: Interchangeable camera lenses
Apple is also investigating the possibility of making interchangeable iPhone camera lenses.
In January 2014, the company was issued two patents that describe methods of attaching camera modules to devices such as the iPhone and iPad.
The first patent, titled “Back panel for a portable electronic device with different camera lens options“, describes a portable electronic device that has a removable case that would allow camera attachments such as wide-angle or fisheye lenses.
The second patent, titled “Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge,” offers an alternative method of attaching new camera lenses to the iPhone using magnets.
A patent published by the USPTO in November 2013 reveals that Apple is interested in technology that will allow users to refocus a photograph after it’s been taken. Such technology is already used in the Lytro camera, with which you can take a photograph and later choose how you want that photo to be focused.
Some of Apple’s rivals including the HTC One M8 have camera features that allow you to achieve similar results, so it’s certainly a potential feature for the next iPhone.
iPhone 8 and beyond: Security & privacy
Apple has come out strongly in favour of user privacy, as was demonstrated in its recent tussle with the FBI in the US. But what technoloigcal developments can it offer to back this up?
In December 2014, USPTO awarded Apple a patent relating to a “personal computing device control using face detection and recognition”.
Current iPhones and iPads can be unlocked using just your fingerprint, thanks to the Touch ID sensor. But with this patent, future iPhones and other devices could be unlocked using facial recognition: effectively, your face becomes your password.
Attack detection mode
In March 2014, USPTO published an Apple patent filing that could be used to protect iPhone owners when they’re in distress.
The patent, titled “Mobile emergency attack and failsafe detection”, describes a feature that combines software and hardware to create an emergency services request system that’s build in to a smartphone such as the iPhone.
Using the iPhone’s sensors, the software could detect when the user is in an emergency situation such as a physical attack or car crash and automatically call for help. Users can set a predefined set of contact numbers, or use the iPhone’s automatic service to call local 999 numbers. It can also make use of the GPS to detect the location of the user and call the contact that’s closest.
To avoid an abundance of 999 calls being placed unnecessarily, the service has a number of modes and measures in place, such as audible warnings that a call is about to be made.
Macworld poll: What do you want from your future iPhone?
It’s your turn. Which of these ideas appeals to you, or are you looking for something else entirely? Have you say in our poll.
Macworld (2016) iPhone 8 and beyond: Future smartphone developments, from graphene and lithium-air batteries to holograms, OLED and motion charging | ‘Super cycle’ iPhone 8 to follow ‘muted’ iPhone 7 | Predictions for iPhone 7s, iPhone 8 & more. Available at: http://www.macworld.co.uk/news/iphone/iphone-8-rumours-patents-future-of-smartphones-bezel-oled-super-cycle-3639808/#toc-5 (Accessed: 20 June 2016).