Apple marked the 10th anniversary of the iPhone with customary style. But the real changes are what’s happening under the hood, writes John Kennedy.
There are two ways you can look at tech: shallow and deep.
The shallow aspects of Apple’s iPhone X launch event in California will be covered in debates around the mouthwatering €1,179 price tag on the new device, its similarities to Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and, of course, the November launch date that will have investors’ knickers in a twist.
The deeper aspects – including machine learning in the new camera, the use of neural networks on a mobile device, the new A11 X Bionic chip, Face ID’s ability to detect 33,000 IR dots on the human face and the absence of HomePod – will be ignored until the populist types run out of air and finally compose themselves.
Wiping a tear from his eye as he opened Apple’s Steve Jobs Theater at its new campus, Apple Park, CEO Tim Cook reminded us that the tech giant doesn’t do things by halves. He pointed out how a “sea of asphalt” was replaced by an open, transparent area of 9,000 trees, which “brings the outside in and connects with the beautiful California landscape”.
It was getting poetic until he pointed out that the new home of Apple is 100pc powered by renewable energy and, when complete, it will be one of the world’s largest repositories of on-site energy. Not only will it reflect Apple’s attention to detail, but it will be home to the future of augmented reality (AR) and retail experiences. Did you catch that last bit? I mentioned AR. You see, the changes ahead aren’t just cosmetic – they could distort the very reality of computing as we know it.
Apple began as a computer company. It will always be a computer company, no matter what shape those computers take, be they phones, tablets, watches, voice assistants, TVs or VR goggles.
My key takeaway was what Apple is doing with the silicon that sits underneath its shiny devices, and how that silicon then interacts with an all-knowing, all-thinking, artificially intelligent cloud.
1. Siri-ously, where was HomePod?
That’s right, HomePod, Apple’s $349 Siri-powered speaker that will take on Amazon’s Echo and Google Home didn’t get a mention last night. And silence speaks volumes.
HomePod is due to be launched in December, which is probably why Apple’s senior brass where keeping mum about it. But let’s not forget that it was the firmware specs in HomePod and iOS 11 that pretty much fuelled the fire of leaks and rumours about the iPhone X as well as the new Apple Watch 3’s capabilities. Siri is the heart of Apple’s AI future so expect a more in-depth focus on the future of Siri and Apple’s AI ambitions in the next month or two.
2. The heart of the matter
Speaking of Siri, Apple COO Jeff Williams revealed how Siri will be quicker on the new Apple Watch 3 and, for the first time on an Apple Watch device, Siri will be able to talk back. The big reveal about the new smartwatch was clearly all about cellular – at least on the surface – and how Apple had cleverly built the antenna into the display. Crucially, this means that the Apple Watch will be a capable standalone device that functions separately from your iPhone, but with AI and GPS with you wherever you go.
This will result in abundant new AI-based features such as smart activity apps, or virtual trainers, who will keep you on your feet or gliding through the water. Crucially, the new device also features a dual-core processor that is 70pc faster than the Watch 2 and comes with a new wireless chip. It also connects your wrist wirelessly to Apple’s AirPod headphones and thus, to around 40m tunes on Apple Music.
But where the AI-based future that Apple is really striking at gets interesting, is health – the health of your heart, specifically.
You see, not only has Apple brought the heart-rate meter to the front of the watch, the smartwatch will also warn you if you suddenly develop an elevated heart rate, even if you are not active. This could be a lifesaver.
3. Siri represents a new inflection point in TV, and is the new remote control
Tim Cook revealed that Apple recently won an Emmy for the Apple TV because of how “Siri makes it easy to watch TV”. But, tellingly, he didn’t expand on how the AI assistant will revolutionise TV into the future. Instead, Apple’s internet software chief, Eddy Cue, took to the stage to reveal the new Apple TV 4K and how high-dynamic-range (HDR) technologies will make 4K shimmer into life in the living room.
But it’s the guts and what’s under the hood that matters here. At the heart of the Apple TV is the A10X Fusion chip, which means that graphics are four times faster. Immersive games, such as the Sky game demonstrated by Jenova Chen of Thatgamecompany, promise to be enchanting and lifelike.
4. That A11 Bionic chip
Will the iPhone X distract from the advances in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus? And, if so, is Apple risking cannibalising sales?
Apple has taken on something of a gamble by bringing out two high-end smartphones as par for the course – the all-glass 4.7in iPhone 8 and the 5.5in iPhone 8 Plus – at the same time as the iPhone X.
There will always be people who will think nothing of forking out more than €1,000 for the latest thing and, if the iPhone X hadn’t been revealed, these same people would have dutifully queued for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Now they have choices to make.
It really comes down to how much you are willing to spend, as the difference is in the region of €300, just to have bragging rights.
The guts of all three devices will be the new A11 Bionic chip, which is 25pc faster than the previous A10 in last year’s iPhone 7 series devices and which features the first Apple-designed GPU.
All three devices are beautifully designed. The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus look similar to the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, only that they are surrounded in glass. All feature a 12MP camera with new sensors that increase the colour gamut but reduce the noise in photos and videos. And all are capable of wireless inductive charging.
If you look more closely, the iPhone 8 Plus, with its dual camera sensors and 3GB of RAM, is more closely aligned to the iPhone X in terms of performance and capability, with the only real differences being design and the absence of Face ID in the former. Oh, and some AI bells and whistles in the camera sensors.
5. Machine learning inside the camera sensors is a thing
While everybody was busy admiring the visual splendour of the iPhone X, with its smooth, seamless body and Super Retina display, my ears pricked up when software chief Craig Federighi mentioned how machine learning in the iPhone X will enable users to compose beautiful, artful shots on the go.
This capability is also present in the iPhone 8 where Portrait Lighting composes the shot as you take it, practically enabling you to edit the shot beforehand. As well as this, real-time motion analysis enables what Apple claims will be the highest-quality video capture to emerge in a smartphone yet.
6. Apple wants to augment reality
The evolution of AR is finally becoming clear as Apple’s ARKit was the subtle star of the show.
Get real-time baseball stats as you look through the viewfinder at a baseball game, or bring your video games onto the street or the kitchen table through games such as Metal 2. The possibilities are endless and Apple could easily have devoted more time to this. It is also telling that Apple has not revealed its intentions around virtual reality, either. Watch this space.
7. Neural engines for security, need we say more?
The sheer compute power enabled by the A11 Bionic chip, allied with facial recognition technology in the Face ID feature on the new iPhone X, was apparent when marketing boss Phil Schiller revealed that Face ID was enabled by built-in neural engines.
This is like science fiction coming to life, where neural computers inside a smartphone do split-second analysis.
Face ID can detect facial features in the dark using around 33,000 infrared (IR) dots that suddenly do the computing work with a built-in engine to unlock face recognition. Not only that, but the IR sensors learn your face and adjust as your face changes, whether you age or simply grow a beard.
Schiller pointed to Secure Enclave technology, which makes Face ID vastly more secure than Touch ID. He said that there is a one-in-50,000 chance of hacking Touch ID; for Face ID, the chances are one in a million.
8. Please don’t let the future be about animated emojis
The real-time photo sensors in the iPhone X allowed Federighi to goof around on the stage with Animojo – animated emojis – and, as amusing as this was, I’m not sure I relish people, start-ups, or PRs especially, leaving me messages in the form of a cartoon unicorn. Try it, and I promise to reply in the ‘turd’ person.
9. Apple is planning to unleash some impressive AirPower
My wild-card guess earlier this week was all about wireless or inductive charging, and I suggested that maybe the inductive charger on the Apple Watch could come in handy. But, as usual, Apple has gone one further with the notion of a wireless charging mat called AirPower, which allows you to charge up to three devices at once, including an iPhone X, an Apple Watch 3 and a pair of AirPods.
But it actually goes further than that. Schiller revealed that Apple wants AirPower to be the new charging standard for the entire smartphone industry, and is willing to work with other manufacturers to make that happen. Could this signal a new, open and collaborative future for Apple? An Apple that goes beyond the walled garden of its orchard? We’ll see.
10. It’s time to think about Apple as a company fostering the AI future, not just a seller of shiny devices
“No device in our lifetime has had the impact on our lives as the iPhone has,” Cook told the Apple faithfuls who had gathered in the new Steve Jobs Theater.
“Nothing else has put so much power in people’s hands as the iPhone has. For the first time, it meant people were touching the software. We changed the way people communicate, with iMessage and FaceTime. With Siri, we use AI to make voices more powerful. iPhone even revolutionised security and privacy with Touch ID and our wallets with Apple Pay.
“We put amazing cameras into people’s hands to capture images of their lives. Over the past decade, we pushed forward with innovation after innovation, bringing us to this moment.
“We now have devices that are far more intelligent, far more capable and more personal than ever before.”
What Cook didn’t emphasise – but no doubt soon will – is how AI, machine learning and real-time motion processing will transcend a lot more devices, in more places than we can imagine. Expect to see and hear a lot more of Siri.