Is This the Last Great iPhone Launch?

The more things change, a wise man once wrote, the more they stay the same. No doubt he was contemplating the day when the arrival of yet another iPhone would be a mundane thing.
Okay, maybe Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (the guy who coined plus ça change) wasn’t quite that foresighted. But eventually, sooner rather than later, the iPhone line is going to run out of changes that are interesting to the majority of us.
That won’t stop it being the best (or bestselling) smartphone in the world. It just makes it a mature product, like the Macbook. More evolution, less revolution.

The Eyes Already Have It

Consider the screen resolution. Once Apple hit upon the retina display in the iPhone 4, it had by definition squeezed in more pixels than the human eye could account for. The iPhone 4S could look no sharper, and the iPhone 5 — if that is what it is called — cannot either. Apple had to settle for retina-izing the iPad and Macbook.
By most accounts, the iPhone 5 will boast an elongated display, allowing you to watch video in 16:9 aspect ratio without letterboxing. (Translation: it’s going to look more like a movie screen or HDTV). But here also we have a human limitation.
The 16:9 ratio is the standard for modern TV shows and DVDs, and roughly the standard for movies, for a reason. It fits snugly in our field of vision. And when applied to the current iPhone, it hits the upper limit of what fits in our pockets.
So then what? I doubt that Apple will ever produce an iPhone that is larger in width than the current model. Android phones go there, not to mention the tablet-smartphone hybrid Galaxy Note (which also just upgraded to a 16:9 ratio). They all feel unwieldy in the palm, or require two hands to operate.
Apple could have made a wider iPhone many models ago. Why haven’t they? Because, as at least one analyst has said, the company takes one-handed iPhone use “very seriously.” Jonny Ive, in other words, wants you to be able to stretch the thumb of the holding hand to all corners of the screen, so your other hand is always free to do whatever your busy life dictates it do.
Again, we’re running into real human design constraints here: retinas and opposable thumbs.

LTE and Done

What else is left to upgrade? You’ll have noticed that the storage capacity of iPhones hasn’t changed in a few models; they range from 8GB to 64GB. And there doesn’t seem to be much of a clamor for anything larger.
Once upon a time, many of us may have wished for a 128GB iPhone. I know I did. But with the advent of cloud storage — in particular, iTunes Match — this matters less and less. I haven’t needed to free up room on my iPhone 4S 64GB in the last year, which surprised me. I have deleted a little-used space-hogging game or two, confident in the fact that I can always re-download it for free.
How about the wireless technology that drives the phone itself? Well, we’re likely to see a great leap forward from 3G to LTE (Long Term Evolution) in the iPhone 5. Not only is LTE way faster than 3G, it is in theory faster than most Wi-fi. That’s a big wow factor, right there.
But what comes after that? Well, there’s an even faster technology called, not surprisingly, LTE Advanced. That is going to take years to roll out — and is, as far as the average user is concerned, an incremental improvement. You can’t see it making a whole lot of headlines in the mainstream press.
At a certain point, the devices in our pockets become speedy enough that they can handle pretty much anything we can throw at them, and the only constraints are app makers’ imaginations and carrier bandwidth. That’s a very real and ongoing story, but it will no longer be the iPhone’s story.

What Else Is There?

Apple is reportedly holding back NFC (Near Field Communications) technology, on which it has several patents, from the iPhone 5. So you may have to wait until the iPhone 5S or 6, if that naming convention continues, until you can pay for products by waving your phone.
But here again, I think, we run into a human limitation. NFC has been around for years. So have smart credit cards with radio chips, where you tap to pay. And when was the last time you did that?
There is such a thing as payment with too little friction. We like the solidity of swiping a credit card; you have to be pretty certain about your purchase to do that. We fear a system that could be manipulated, where accounts could be charged without our say-so — or without enough thought on our part, which could be just as dangerous.

The iPhone’s Golden Years

Even if NFC is the tent-pole feature of the next iPhone after this, it’s not a whole lot to hang a launch event on.
Battery life can improve, of course. But Lithium-ion, the dominant battery technology of the last two decades, has hit something of a wall, something seemingly inherent in chemistry. Absent a scientific breakthrough, battery improvements are all going to be on the software side — doing more with less power.
The device could get lighter, certainly, and thinner, possibly — although you still need space for a power button, a lock button, a headphone jack, a dock connector and volume controls. (It really doesn’t get much thinner than the iPod Touch.)
But again, really, these are incremental improvements. Like the chips on the inside, they’re always going to be interesting to the Apple cognoscenti — not so much to the audience at large. We’ll care more and more about iOS 6 and its inheritors; not so much about the iPhone 6.
That’s why we’re being teased with the possibility of truly new Apple products, such as the iPad Mini or iTV, later this year. These are the launches that will remain a big deal — when Apple, the world’s most obsessively design-minded mass-market company, tackles an entirely new category.
The iPhone, meanwhile, can follow the iPod, the iMac and Macbook into its golden years — where its look is pretty much settled, its place in tech history assured, and all that remains is a long, comfortable life of incremental iteration.

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