Predicting Apple’s 2018 reveal: Will the iPhone maker iterate or innovate?

12 Sep 2018

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Image: John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock

It’s time for a few more new things, urges John Kennedy.

“Can’t innovate any more, my ass!” Apple’s vice-president of worldwide marketing, Phil Schiller, famously raged at the 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference. He was responding to criticism that Apple was getting, well, a bit predictable.

I won’t say predictable, but I will say that since then, things have been a bit iterative.

‘Even the circus of curiosity around Apple’s big reveal is becoming a drab pageant of predictability pockmarked by leaks about leaks. Can Apple even keep secrets any more?’

Every year, Apple reveals new iPhone models and, up until last year, the phones pretty much looked the same except for a nip and tuck here and there, a faster processor, a new OS, a better camera, better storage. All better, but all iterative.

Last year, though, Apple did something special. It brought out three new smartphones: the iPhone 8, the iPhone 8 Plus and the enigmatic iPhone X, which it declared “the future of the smartphone”. The tech giant also revealed its next-generation Apple Watch 3 and a new Apple TV 4K.

I was excited about the iPhone X not only because it looked different with its distinctive notch and all-screen display, but because of what was happening under the hood in terms of the AI that was promised. This included machine learning in the new camera, the use of neural networks on a mobile device, the new A11 X Bionic chip and Face ID’s ability to detect 33,000 IR dots on the human face. This isn’t iterative, it is innovation at its peak. But how do you explain that to the public who just see three new phones? Not a simple matter.

Apple is now a trillion-dollar company and the iPhone X has been a roaring success for the company, capturing 35pc of all smartphone profits in the world in a single quarter. That is seriously impressive.

This is where it gets frustrating for the leadership in Cupertino; the scale and enormity of what the company does just to engineer what happens inside devices, in terms of the electronics as well as the logistics for a global roll-out, is mind-boggling. I mean, how dare people want more!

But we do want more because, from Steve Jobs’ endearing ‘one more thing’ hook to approving of CEO Tim Cook’s impressive leadership in the past several years, we expect Apple to do something new.

In all fairness, turning out an iPhone or even three iPhones each year is not just turning around battleships, it means turning around fleets of aircraft carriers. But, let’s be honest – it’s time for a new form factor. A wow factor.

It is an open secret that Apple is working on self-driving car technology. However, since the AirPod wireless headphones and more recently the HomePod smart speaker, devices from the Apple Watch to the iPhone and iPad have been characterised by iterative performance boosts and various screen sizes (and price increases) but little else. The MacBook has a sliver of a screen running along its keyboard. It’s still all very iterative and ‘samey’.

‘Only Apple really knows’ is how I usually sign off articles predicting what’s coming. But even the circus of curiosity around Apple’s big reveal is becoming a drab pageant of predictability pockmarked by leaks about leaks. Can Apple even keep secrets any more?

Today (12 September) at its new headquarters in California, the Apple leadership will amaze, enthral and inspire with new feats of software and hardware engineering, but I want to see Apple innovate, not simply iterate.

So, here’s what we know, or think we know, so far.

Say hello to the XS Max

The name sounds a bit like a new Lynx/Axe fragrance, but it will cost a lot more. The inevitable, lamentable parade of leaks suggests that the iPhone XS Max will have a 6.5in screen – almost a tablet – and will come with an eye-watering, wallet-withering price tag of €1,500. No doubt it will come with a big battery and beautiful LCD screen, too, to enjoy streaming movies and TV shows on.

A cheaper iPhone X model and new colours

Apple is set to reveal an upgrade to the 5.8in iPhone X and a 6.1in model with lower specifications.

Leaks have also suggested a brave new palette of colours, including gold.

New computers

Let’s never forget that Apple is a computer company and smartphones are effectively computers. No other tech company than Apple has done more to help us reimagine the computer in its various forms, from the iPhone to the iPad, the Apple Watch, various MacBook models and the desktop Mac.

This year’s reveal is expected to include an all-new MacBook, a Mac Mini and a new iPad Pro with facial recognition, sans a home button.

Apple Watch gets a major redesign

It is hard to believe it has been four years since the Apple Watch was first revealed. Now on to its fourth generation, it will feature its first major redesign.

Leaks point to a thinner body and a larger display for the Series 4. The Series 4 is also rumoured to include a new electrocardiography sensor, which promises a more accurate way to measure heart rate and could pave the way for more advanced medical applications.

Engineering expectations is not easy

In summing up that ‘only Apple really knows’, the challenge Cook, Schiller and the rest of the management of the tech giant face is managing expectations.

The annual circus around new devices has resulted in increasing numbers of new models but, apart from iteration, very little in the way of new form factors. Apple is a money machine, but it has to be less predictable when it comes to making money.

Will Apple ever do anything around virtual reality and augmented reality? Where is it going with its vision for the internet of things with home automation and the HomePod/Apple TV ecosystem? How is it pushing the boundaries of the compute continuum?

I don’t envy Cook his task in explaining how even the tiniest iteration is a mammoth feat of innovation in itself. But a few more new things wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.

Apple CEO Tim Cook. Image: John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years