The iPhone 4 may be the last major advance in mobile phones we’ll ever see. There’ll still be plenty of incremental and useful improvements, but it’s hard to see what kind of attention-grabbing features are left:
- The Retina screen, at 326 pixels per inch, approaches the limits of human vision; it’s the end of the line for these kinds of displays. The iPhone could do better outdoors, but that doesn’t seem to have been a particularly successful selling point for eInk; and they could go 3D, but I’m not convinced that consumers even want that (not that it’d be too hard anyway).
- Battery life is now about 10 hours; we’d all be happy if it was longer, but most people have gotten used to recharging their phones every night, so improvements beyond a day or two are not big selling points.
- Network speed and reliability absolutely could be better, but this is an issue for network operators, not manufacturers like Apple. No doubt when the next super-fast standard (LTE) is widespread, we’ll see a new chip dropped into every phone. So what? It’s still the same phone.
- At last, the iPhone has two cameras, and the main camera performs very nicely, with good 5MP photos (I always laugh when I hear people boasting about their 8MP mobile phones, given that their photos always end up on Facebook) and 720p HD video. I don’t see many people clamouring for 1080p video.
- GPS, digital compass and a gyroscope are all built-in now – what more do you need? Unless the Galileo navigation satellites offer significant improvements over GPS for consumer applications, I think we’re at the end of the line here as well.
- While it’d be nice if you could roll up the iPhone, or it was as thin as a credit card, we’re approaching the point of diminishing returns here. It’s not as if it’s busting anyone’s pockets any more.
- Speed: Again, diminishing returns – it takes me only a few seconds to load up most apps. With iOS 4’s ‘multitasking’, switching between commonly-used apps is almost instant. Having said that, I’m sure we’ll see dual-core processors at some point and people will get all excited about the battery life improvements and apps taking only two seconds to load instead of three.
You can quibble about the details – maybe I’m wrong about battery life or processor speed – but I don’t see any major technological advances over the horizon that Apple – or any other company – can use as a killer feature. The iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 will be faster, longer-lasting, thinner and lighter, but they’ll still be basically the same. They won’t have three cameras, or ultra-HD video, or a 6″ screen, or a month-long battery. There won’t be much at all that distinguishes the iPhone from the top-of-the-range Android phones*, which will be quick to catch up; and more importantly, there won’t be much that distinguishes the iPhone 6 from the iPhone 7 (certainly not the screen, unless it goes 3D).
In other words, we’ve reached the ultimate destination of hand-held communication devices with displays – that is, mobile phones. It’s not going to get any better than this.
*Other than iOS, of course, which will continue to improve, along with the apps. But how important will the new hardware be for achieving this?
With the mobile phone reaching a plateau, Apple will have to look elsewhere in order to make the advances in user experience that consumers will pay enormous amounts of cash for. The iPad is one area, the Apple TV is another. But what of personal communication devices?
There are some promising candidates, such as subvocalisation tech and the long-awaited augmented reality glasses (which Apple has been researching since at least 2008). Both would promise major improvements in communication, work, and entertainment, but I have yet to see good demonstrations of either tech in practice.
Without them, it’s unlikely that they’re ready for market – remember that the iPod was far from being the first personal MP3 player, and the iPhone was certainly not the first smartphone. Perhaps Apple has some ultra-secret tech up their sleeves, with Foxconn factories just waiting to spin into action – but that’s just a fantasy. Just look how difficult it is to make an iPad, let alone laser-based computer glasses.
It looks like we’re going to spend a few years in limbo between mobile phones and whatever comes next. Good job Apple has the iPad to tide it over.