If you listen to Apple’s inflationary marketing spiel, every time the company launches a new iPhone, it “changes everything.” The prosaic truth, however, is that most iPhone releases aren’t all that revolutionary. Apple, like everyone else, sometimes takes multiple iterations to complete its most ambitious goals. But as we face up to the culmination of another year of hyped-up iPhone speculation, I do see three particular ways in which the new iPhone X flagship will indeed be the harbinger of massive and irrevocable change.
Most Verge readers will by now be fully habituated to seeing phones like the Galaxy S8 and Note 8, LG G6 and V30, or the Mi Mix and Essential Phone showing off a modern phone design with negligible bezels around the screen. But while geeks can already take them for granted, the vast majority of people still haven’t seen one of these bezel-deprived screens in person, and their first encounter with one will be — prepare to feign surprise — on the iPhone X.
The new iPhone will be the biggest reconfiguration of the front of Apple’s smartphone since its inception a decade ago. The mechanical home button was ditched last year in favor of a fixed pad with haptic feedback, and this year Apple is removing the whole thing. The iconic outline of an iPhone, featuring two big bars of bezel at top and bottom and a round home button, is going to be no more. We’re all underestimating just how massive a change this will be, and how strong the reaction to it will be. Those of us in the know have grown blasé about bezel-less screens, while most people just aren’t yet aware of what’s coming from Apple.
Whether Samsung likes it or not, September 12th will be the date when the majority of people first learn about bezel-less screens. So yes, for many people, Apple will end up having “invented” the new display form factor. An amusing parallel to the original iPhone: back then, LG beat Apple to market with a device with a full capacitive touchscreen, but it was terrible and mostly forgotten. LG also beat Apple to market with multiple phones with a minimal bezel this year, of which only the latest V30 stands a chance to be remembered.
Apple’s dramatic reconfiguration of the iPhone will reset expectations for all phones
In any case, once Apple drops its hype-rogen bomb in a week’s time, every person with even a passing interest in tech or smartphones will have the iPhone X’s bezel-starved look as their new paradigm for an ideal design. It won’t take months or weeks for everyone to start demanding bezel-free phones, it’ll be instant. Sony’s still unreleased Xperia XZ1 models will sink out of sight and relevance, as if weighed down by their big bezels from circa 2012. Even the OnePlus and the HTC U11, two phones with plenty of reason to recommend them, will appear a step behind.
Individual opinions won’t matter with this shift to trim bezels off the front of phones. It’s happening, it’s inevitable, and Apple’s participation will turbocharge the whole thing. Everyone that hadn’t already been working to beat Apple to the punch will have to hurry to catch up. In six months’ time, when Mobile World Congress gives us our look at the next batch of smartphone launches, companies that still use bigger bezels around their screens will have to justify themselves. Another six months later, people will likely start hiding their older phone’s bezels inside elaborate cases. By 2019, hipsters will probably start using “fat bezel” phones as a symbol of their rejection of the ultra-modern society.
Same story as with displays: Apple’s pricey new iPhone won’t be an isolated exception, but rather it will be the foam at the top of a gradually building wave of change in the mobile industry. By most predictions, the new flagship iPhone will be priced somewhere in the vicinity of $1,000, probably starting just below that mark and topping out somewhere above it, subject to spec. This is going to be the biggest upward push that Apple has made with the price of its top iPhone model, though indications are that demand will still likely outstrip supply. I’ve gone into more depth on the potential reasons and justifications for a $1,000 phone price in my article discussing that pricing with respect to Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8, which starts at $930 in the US.
The broader market trend in 2017 has been for all phones to get more expensive. Huawei’s P9 was one of 2016’s hidden gems, a bargain of a flagship phone that had design and performance far above its price point. The same is true of the OnePlus 3 and even its successor 3T, all great phones that were better than their price. Well, in 2017 Huawei priced the P10 at a much higher level, OnePlus pushed the OnePlus 5 into more familiar flagship pricing territory, and other companies like Sony moved to introduce super flagship models such as the Xperia XZ Premium.
Every smartphone maker has been drifting upward in price, and Apple is going to validate that trend
It’s an irony of the tech industry that when innovation starts to slow down and easy upgrades are fewer and further between, prices go up instead of down. To achieve a bezel-less screen such as the one Samsung, LG, and soon Apple will tout as their unique selling point, it takes years of research and development work. Most companies have decided that it’s in their best interest to move up the smartphone food chain — by adding dual cameras or using exotic materials like ceramic and titanium, as with the Essential Phone — than to continue trying to eke out ever smaller upgrades every year at more affordable prices. That’s the simple reality of the phone market today, and it’s the thing Apple’s new iPhone pricing will reiterate to a wider audience.
Apple’s elevated iPhone pricing is likely to grant some much-needed respite to its Android competitors. I myself have been hard on Huawei and OnePlus for abandoning their faithful fans who expect them to keep producing devices at a certain price point — but if Apple is stretching the smartphone market up into previously unexplored cost ranges, everyone else starts to look a little better by comparison. The Galaxy Note 8 is going to hit retail shelves at roughly the same time as Apple’s new iPhones, and its own lofty price won’t look out of place when compared against the nearest Apple alternative.
When it comes to bezel-free screens and more expensive smartphones, you could argue that those trends would have materialized with or without Apple’s participation. In both cases, it seems like broader technological and economic developments were going to force the market in a certain direction, and Apple’s involvement is more an accelerator than a cause. But if you want a change that Apple is likely to drive from the ground up, look no further than augmented reality.
The ARKit toolset for creating AR experiences that Apple unveiled as part of its new iOS 11 is a massive upgrade over anything else that’s come before it. That operating system will come preloaded on the iPhone X and will be distributed to the majority of iPhones already in use, making for an immediate user base of hundreds of millions of people. But its core advantage is that it doesn’t require special hardware like the Google Tango system, ARKit apps just work with your regular iPhone or iPad camera. It’s augmented reality done in the most unintrusive way possible, and I foresee it being a runaway success because of how well it will synergize with Apple’s new bezel-less screen and because of how good the early attempts with it have been.
ARKit has the potential to be the App Store of augmented reality. Nokia and Sony Ericsson had apps before the iPhone, many of which were useful and fun, but it was Apple that truly delivered on the promise of a coherent and comprehensive mobile app store. Instagram would never have become a billion-dollar business if it had to run on Nokia’s Symbian platforms. The same is true of AR apps: we’ve had sputtering attempts at making them a mainstream thing for at least a decade, and what’s needed now is a leader to organize and systematize AR into a coherent system. Who better than Apple for such a task?
Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly expressed his belief that “augmented reality will be bigger than virtual reality,” and with the instant user base that the iPhone promises to ARKit developers, it’s easy to foresee AR taking off with the launch of the iPhone X and iOS 11. Google is certainly hurrying to keep pace, recently introducing its own competing offering in ARCore. Joost van Dreunen, CEO of SuperData Research, has noted that it “seems like augmented reality is the new frontier for big tech firms,” while also underlining just how much bigger Apple’s ARKit will be relative to ARCore: “Just to be clear here, Google is aiming to have ARCore operational on 100M units at the end of the preview, but Apple is likely to crush that number five-fold.”
The scale of Apple’s existing user base and the continuity in software that the company has managed to maintain over so many years are both going to augment its efforts at making AR a big thing in 2017. It’s obvious there will be an initial burst of enthusiasm from unsuspecting users, but then it will be up to developers to convert that into long-lasting change by delivering AR apps with more substantive utility. The original iPhone was also not the finished article in its first generation, and it took Apple a few years to perfect it, but we celebrate it now as the start of the iPhone transformation. The same could be true with ARKit on the new iPhones.
Update, September 20th, 3AM ET: The article has been amended to reflect the now-official title of Apple’s new top-tier device, the iPhone X.