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Apple’s iPhone Event Signals a Design Inflection Point

Soon, all phones may look like the X

Lance Ulanoff
Sep 7, 2018 · 8 min read
Apple CEO Tim Cook will do the new iPhone introduction honors. Photo: Qi Heng/VCG via Getty Images

The expensive, notched, under-appreciated Apple iPhone X will get its due on Sept. 12. That’s the day when Apple CEO Tim Cook will take the stage at spaceship-like the Steve Jobs Theater to announce a fresh collection of phones.

And they will all bear the stamp of the iPhone X design.

Almost since the moment Apple unveiled the home-button-free, notched, OLED screen device that costs as much as a really good pair of Jimmy Choo Sneakers (a.k.a. $999), detractors have labeled it a failure and predicted its discontinuation. Many saw the iPhone as overreaching. “Sure, we can live with the “courageous” removal of the headphone jack, but an edge-to-edge screen that can’t find a more elegant tech solution for the True Depth module? This will not stand.”

Of course, it has stood, quarter after quarter.

At each Apple earnings report since the launch and shipment of Apple’s iPhone X (which was released alongside the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus), I listened for hints of trouble, a passing cloud or looming thunderhead in the distance.

Tim Cook made a point to highlight the iPhone X during each call. Initially, he was in defense mode. He needed people to understand why the iPhone X was so insanely expensive, and he needed to remind consumers how they could pay for it.

As Cook pointed out, most of us are not paying a $1,000 lump sum. Instead, we go on monthly plans (some pay Apple $34.50 a month to always have the newest iPhone). During one earnings call, Cook said the cost was equivalent to “a few coffees a week at one of these nice coffee places.” It may have been a little flip, but it got the point across.

By 2018, Cook was all too happy to trumpet the iPhone X’s sales success, at least by his measure.

This is a coronation for the iPhone X design.

After Apple sold 77 million iPhones over the holiday season and into the first part of this year — the first full quarter to include the iPhone X — Tim Cook said, “Apple iPhone X has been our top-selling iPhone every week since it launched.”

In fairness, if you look at the earnings report, you’d notice a 1% year-over-year unit sales decline. However, the metric that backs up Cook’s iPhone X assertion is the 13% jump in revenue year-over-year. Clearly, a higher-priced handset is going to push revenues higher, even on a marginally down year.

Cook hit the same note quarter after quarter. In May, he said that “Customers chose iPhone X more than any other iPhone each week in the March quarter, just as they did following its launch in the December quarter.” And in July, Cook said the iPhone X was the best-selling iPhone.

I wish Apple would do a formal breakout of iPhone model sales, but that’s never been their way. To give them their due, at least Apple reports sales and not shipments (market leader Samsung consistently does the opposite for its Android handsets).

Apple didn’t force consumers to buy the iPhone X. There were two other, excellent brand-new phone options, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. They’re a pair of more traditional handsets that can satisfy iPhone buyers in size, power, performance, and — maybe most importantly — price.

Now, we’re at an iPhone design inflection point.

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Rumor has it that the iPhone X design aesthetic will bleed out into as many as three handsets: a 5.8-inch iPhone Xs, a monster 6.5-inch known as an iPhone Xs Max, and mid-sized 6.1-inch model. While the idea of naming the 5.8-inch model Xs makes sense since it will likely offer mostly the same screen (OLED) and materials (surgical stainless steel and glass), I’m not so sure the larger 6.5-inch model won’t get a name more like “iPhone X Plus.”

Aside from screen technology and material differences (6.1 might have an LCD screen and aluminum body), these new handsets will all be home-button-free and notch friendly. None will have home buttons or Touch ID (unless it moves to the back of the phones). They will all have TrueDepth modules, Face ID, front-facing Portrait Mode, and 2X optical zoom. There’s a strong possibility that we’ll see megapixel updates on all the cameras, front and back. Will all of them offer the same, new A12 CPU? Maybe, though, it seems likely that the 6.1-inch model will stick with the A11 Bionic and cost considerably less than the other two handsets.

Bringing these features to lower-priced handsets is a move Tim Cook hinted at in May when he talked about the cutting-edge screen and facial recognition technology found only in the iPhone X: “Obviously, if those technologies move to a lower price point, that may lead to increased unit demand.”

From a distance, though, (and I will be sitting a fair distance away from Cook’s perch on stage), I bet these phones will be indistinguishable from the original iPhone X.

Put simply, Apple is, if all the rumors and conjecture prove true, trebling down on the iPhone X design. That, my friends, is an obvious sign of success, at least as I see it.

Forrester VP and Principal Analyst JP Gownder told me via email that he believes “price elasticity” caught up with the iPhone X. In other words, demand didn’t ramp up equivalently with the higher price. He also thinks Apple consumers’ continued satisfaction with existing models may have made the pricey iPhone X less attractive.

Still, Gownder agreed with my core thesis: This is a coronation for the iPhone X design.

“The aesthetic and technical influence of the iPhone X is likely to be felt in any new releases, since the device pushed forward areas like screen display and camera and became an aspiration even for people who don’t own the device,” he wrote.

I don’t think Apple is quite ready to abandon the handset design launched with the iPhone 6 and carried through with considerable success to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Apple can’t easily eliminate the option of a more affordable handset that still features a Touch ID home button on its face. Will they also introduce iPhone 8s and 8s Plus handsets that upgrade the CPU to A12 or will Apple unveil SE models that, perhaps, upgrade the camera but stick with the A11 Bionic?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: Apple is now perfectly comfortable with offering a wide range of iPhone prices, performance levels, and design options. There are currently eight. Can the line handle 10? I think so. And if that sounds crazy to you, consider that Apple is the sole purveyor of iOS handsets. Android has dozens of manufactures and an insane number of handset options. The Android market supports a high level of choice just fine. If Apple can handle it, so can the market.

Photo: Qi Heng/VCG via Getty Images

Beyond the iPhone

This isn’t just an iPhone event. Yes, the iPhone is what matters here, but Apple prefers its fall product events bold and I’m certain this one will be no different.

Longtime Apple watcher and Creative Strategies President Tim Bajarin agreed, when I asked him via email, that there will be multiple product announcements “since they have so many products that need updating.”

Most people, including Bajarin, have heard the rumors about a new Apple Watch Series 4 that, while supposedly not doing much to the overall design, extends the OLED screen to the furthest edges of the display. It might also add a UV monitor.

Some believe the Apple event invitation’s circular design pattern indicates a round Apple Watch design update. I doubt this. I do wish Apple would finally introduce a $199 composite Apple Watch, but I don’t think that’ll happen this time (if it does, though, I want all the credit).

The pattern on the invitation could be a from-the-air depiction of the event venue, the new design for a Touch ID button on the back of some new iPhones, or it might be a signal about a completely different product category. Maybe it’s the top of a new $199 HomePod mini speaker.

What does that rose gold design mean? Image: Apple

Apple introduced the $349 HomePod last year. It’s a powerful speaker and a decent Siri home, but there’s no indication it’s been a big hit. When Tim Cook mentioned it during an earnings call, he spoke of its performance, but said nothing about sales. I’m hoping Apple finally recognizes the smart speaker market is not about winning over audiophiles. I know many people who happily play music through their phonically-challenged Amazon Echos. They do it because they like being able to ask Alexa to play music from Amazon Music, Pandora, or another connected service. Also, Alexa is good at weather forecasts, reading news bulletins, and halfway decent at answering general interest questions.

Apple wants people to think of and treat Siri similarly, but has yet to get the memo on how to inspire the masses to buy its smart speaker solution. Is the HomePod Mini the answer? In my mind, yes, but I put the chances of one showing up at this event at 40%. When I asked Bajarin, he cautioned that he had “not heard anything about HomePod from the rumor mills.” So maybe we put that number at 20%.

The one audio product that has been selling like hotcakes? Apple’s AirPods. A once-derided accessory that I always loved, the AirPods are now everywhere. I see so many people wearing them that I wonder if Apple is kicking itself for not charging more.

Apple would probably love to capitalize on the AirPods’ success, and what better way to do so than to start offering different colors? Or maybe they’ll introduce a slightly updated model with the W2 wireless chip. It’s already in the Apple Watch Series 3 and should bring enhanced battery life and some new playback capabilities.

It’s unlikely we’ll see new iPads or iPad Pros at this event (though Bajarin sees it as a possibility). Similarly, I do not expect any MacBook updates. Apple could save those for an October event.

Do I expect any surprises? No. The rumor mill has effectively deflated any hope of a “one more thing” we didn’t see coming from a mile away. On the other hand, I relish the moment when sitting in my Italian leather seat at the Steve Jobs Theater, I can tweet, “Didn’t see that coming.”

The event kicks off at 1 PM ET. Follow me on Twitter for up-to-the-minute coverage.

Written by

Tech expert, journalist, social media commentator, amateur cartoonist and robotics fan.

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