The future of iPhone: how Apple’s handset could evolve

We take a look at how new and future tech developments will influence the next iPhone

2020 – iPhone 9

iPhone 9

1. 5G

Yes, 4G’s only just rolling out now, but then it took less than 10 years for the world to decide that 3G wasn’t enough, and that 4G was absolutely, positively necessary. However, 5G won’t be what you think. The 4G spec gives it an awful lot of headroom for growth – the initial speeds of a 50Mbps peak in practice and 100Mbps in theory will seem positively antiquated by later versions of the technology.

Eventually, 4G LTE revisions could reach download speeds of up to 1Gbps. With that sort of bandwidth available, it just isn’t necessary for 5G networks to be a big speed bump, like the moves from 2G to 3G, or 3G to 4G were. Instead 5G is intended to focus on improving the mobile internet experience in other ways.

When 4G LTE handsets launched, they pretty much gave up on the idea of power efficiency in favour of high speeds. That’s improving, and has already come on a long way in the iPhone 5, but getting the power usage as low as possible would be a focus for 5G development.

Reducing the likelihood of outages, improving speeds in areas with less coverage, increasing capacity for having high numbers of simultaneous users (so you won’t get network problems at big events, or at time like New Year’s Eve) – basically, the current 5G research is looking at making the speeds of 4G as reliable and ubiquitous as possible.

2. Liquidmetal casing

Apple has used various materials in its quest to build the perfect iPhone casing, from aluminium in the original, to plastic in the 3G/3GS, to glass in the 4/4S, and aluminium (again) in the iPhone 5. They’ve all suffered from practical flaws, even if they’ve all been improvements on each other.

The aluminium back of the iPhone 5, for example, needs to have small glass sections for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas, because the metal would otherwise block them. But Apple has exclusive rights to a technology called Liquidmetal, which could solve many of the problems with case construction.

For a start, it can be made in thin, complicated shapes easily while still providing strength; so as Apple keeps trimming millimetres off the iPhone, Liquidmetal offers a more flexible way to make the casing. It’s also highly scratch-resistant and durable, helping to keep your iPhone in pristine condition even after a few years of brushing against your keys.

And, perhaps most usefully, it can actually be used as the material for the iPhone’s antennas, meaning they can be integrated into the casing even more efficiently than they are now. And it’s even possible to finish Liquidmetal in different ways – it can be used to make shining metal casing, textured metal and more.

One of Liquidmetal’s inventors estimates that, in 2012, Apple is at least five years and several hundred million dollars away from being able to use Liquidmetal at this scale, but in the future it could offer exactly the kind of thin, strong casing needed.

3. The future of Gorilla Glass

It’s something of an open secret that Corning’s Gorilla Glass is what keeps the front of the iPhone scratch-free. This treated glass is extremely resistant to small amounts of damage (it can still be shattered, mind), and the latest version of the technology reduces the thickness of the glass by around 20%, while being stronger than ever. Corning told us that it would continue looking to make its glass thinner while maintaining strength.

The issue with going much thinner than it’s made currently (0.5mm thick) is that the glass inevitably becomes more flexible as it gets thinner, and if it becomes too much so, it could bend and damage the screen underneath it if you applied too much pressure (by, for example, sitting on it).

However, Corning still believes it can reduce the thickness of its glass down to around 0.3mm, and it will still be as tough. Corning also make substrate glass, which is the glass that the actual screens are built with, as opposed to the cover glass, which protects the screen. Corning’s latest technology aims to produce substrates that are just 0.05mm thick, which is possible because they don’t need to be tough like the cover glass – the composition can be different.

Beyond that, Corning is looking into adding anti-smudge/fingerprint technology when it produces the glass, as well as coating to self-heal scratches and reduce glare to zero with impacting on screen quality.

4. A more touching experience

Just before the launch of the iPad 3, there were rumours going around that Apple would include technology from a company called Senseg in its touchscreens that allowed for haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is essentially touch feedback, and it takes many forms.

Some smartphones vibrate every time you hit a button or key on the touchscreen, in an attempt to replicate what you feel when you press a physical button. Senseg’s technology is considerably more advanced, though. It uses electrical fields to actually recreate physical feeling on the touchscreen. So, if you were to run your finger along a row of keys on a keyboard, each one would actually feel as if it were physically there to your finger, even though the flat glass isn’t changing at all.

It can be used to replicate different textures, and to let you ‘feel’ objects on screen as you move them – one of Senseg’s demos involved pushing a ball on-screen.

How would this be used in iOS? While we doubt Apple would go to the trouble of offering you to feel the ‘leather’ in the Calendar app, you would be able to feel the switches in Settings move as you turn them off, feel the keyboard keys as you type, and it could provide a way for Braille readers to use the iPhone and iPad without any accessories needed. Developers might find it a lot of work to integrate – we’re not sure how many of them will want to effectively design a physical product as well as a virtual one.

5. Your iPhone becomes your computer

In the future, the idea of buying a Windows PC or a Mac might become a totally archaic thought. Though the processing power of the iPhone in a decade’s time might well surpass the power of what’s in the latest laptops now, we’re actually not suggesting that your iPhone will simply plug into a screen to form the guts of a computer (though this is entirely possible).

We’re talking about virtualisation through the cloud. The technology already exists in 2012, being put to use in OnLive’s cloud gaming service and OnLive Desktop offering. OnLive Desktop basically switches your home Windows PC for one that’s in the cloud – running on a server owned by someone else. You move a mouse and type on a keyboard, those commands are sent to the server over the internet, and the video stream of the actions is sent back to your screen.

With faster internet speeds available, you’d barely be able to notice any difference to using a PC under your desk. Apple has already taken the unexpected move of making OS X available for home virtualisation, so perhaps iCloud will house the operating system in the future. In fact, iCloud might well become the operating system – you could simply run virtualised versions of applications, with no need for an OS to contain them. And the iPhone would be more than powerful enough to power this, and stream the video to a larger screen over AirPlay.

6. Siri is perfected

By this time, Siri will have had years to learn people’s speech patterns, dialects and accents. It will be able to manage just about any online task for people all over the world. It will also be able to help reach all parts of your phone, and apps will be tied into it, allowing what it can do to be expanded almost infinitely.

The important thing is that it will never make mistakes, and could even start to advise you on tone. If you dictate and email or text with an angry tone, it might suggest calming down and recomposing. If you sound happy, it could append a smiley face. Apple might even move the speech recognition from the cloud to your phone.

This might seem backwards compared to the way everything else is going, but it has distinct advantages, and it’s only in the future that the iPhone would have the computing power to correctly analyse speech. It means that if your internet connection goes down, you won’t lose Siri’s ability to perform actions on your iPhone (even if it can’t do anything in the cloud), and it would make responses as fast as possible.

7. Local storage becomes obsolete

Though there will no doubt be lots of advances in storage capacity over time, it’s likely to become less and less necessary. Ubiquitous fast internet speeds will make music streaming an equivalent to storing it on your device, except that you’ll have access to a library larger than you could ever hope to store yourself.

Movies and TV shows won’t need to be downloaded either – you’ll be able to get instant 3D 4K (the heir apparent to 1080p HD) streams anywhere. On-demand content is likely to almost completely replace watching channels live, except in the case of special events. Physical media will just seem like a waste of space.

Similarly, any documents you work on will just be saved to the cloud. This is already happening, but it will simply become the norm for everything in the future. Photos will be uploaded as they’re taken, stored online for you to review from any device.

Security shouldn’t be a concern in the cloud – Siri could allow to even voice-authenticate access in a pinch – and backing up wouldn’t be a problem, either. Even now, Dropbox saves previous versions of your documents, so they can’t be lost or accidentally overwritten. We’d expect iCloud to offer the same options, just like Apple’s OS X does on the Mac.

2050 – iPhone 24

iPhone 24

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