Looking to the iPhone 9 and beyond
David Price reveals what the future could hold
At iPad & iPhone User we spend a lot of time wondering about the next generation of Apple devices. But sometimes it pays to take a step back and think about the longer term, and the bigger picture. Where is technology going? What does the future hold? And what will Apple’s smartphones look like in 2018, in 2020, in 2030 and beyond? We look ahead to the iPhone 9 and beyond.
Battery and power developments
Perhaps the greatest potential growth area – yet one of the most neglected thus far – is battery life. Battery tech keeps getting better, but smartphone makers (and Apple is guilty of this more than almost anyone) keep cramming in higher-resolution screens and higher-power processors that use up the extra power just as quickly; or they
select a slimmer albeit more efficient battery cell so they can say the phone is thinner than ever before, with the same effect.
In the next few years, we suspect, battery life is going to become more of a priority for phone makers and consumers. Partly this is because phones are now about as slim and fast as anyone could ever want; but partly it’s because some cool battery tech developments are starting to come within the reach of mobile consumer budgets.
Stacked battery cells
One persistent rumour holds that Apple will take the battery tech it developed for the original 12in MacBook (and retained for the 2016 version) – whereby contoured, layered battery units are stacked inside the chassis in order to take up every possible inch of space – and use these to squeeze more battery capacity inside the fixed or even reduced volume that will be available in future iPhones.
Apple could even, thanks to the new technology, make more radical changes to the overall design of the iPhone, because its engineers would no longer to base their work on a fixed battery shape. Although the smartphone is such a mature market now that it would take a brave manufacturer to change its essential form – a little like a mad microwave designer inventing one that’s spherical.
The capacity and efficiency of batteries is sure to increase over the next few years, and may do so dramatically if lithium-oxygen cells (also known
as lithium-air) become a reality. As a Nature study explains, Li-O2 batteries offer theoretically far higher lifetimes than the lithium-ion equivalents currently favoured in mobile devices – maybe as much as five times as much.
But we’re still thinking in terms of conventional battery principles: batteries than need to be charged up from a mains supply, and then run down, and then need to be charged up again.
A different approach is offered by technologies such as motion charging, a principle that has been used in numerous watches going back many years and was reportedly considered by Apple when putting together the first Apple Watch. It uses
kinetic energy from your own movements to charge up a battery cell - the traditional model would be for a wristwatch to harness the power of your arm swinging back and forth throughout the day, but similar methods have been used by wearable phone chargers that generate sufficient power in this way to give an extra hour of life to the average phone from a mere, er, 5,000 steps.
Okay, so the tech needs improvement to achieve mass-market acceptance, and it would be better still if technology of this kind could be integrated into the body of the phone itself (it’s also vital for it to be able to collect a worthwhile amount of power from the smaller-scale movements experienced by a phone in a pocket or handbag rather than on the end of an arm). But it’s an appealingly sustainable way of collecting some of that energy you’re otherwise wasting on things like ‘moving from one place to another’ and ‘getting fit’.
A similar technology category that seems likely in the foreseeable future to supplement rather than supplant traditional battery-charging methods is solar power. Sunpartner Technologies has developed a lightweight skin/case that wraps around a mobile device and collects energy from light that falls on it. This is designed to work with both indoor and natural light, but is obviously better with the latter; in the right circumstances the tech could add some 10- to 15 percent to battery life.
Apple, of course, has been committing itself to a greener approach for some time now, and a patent awarded in 2015 demonstrates this strategy
in action. It suggests that Apple is planning to build solar cells underneath the touchscreen on smartphones in future. The panel would recharge during the day and you wouldn’t need to plug your phone into the socket any more. Good for the planet, convenient for us.
Finally, energy-harvesting technology exists right now that can recapture energy emitted from your phone in the form of radio waves (the wasted ones, not the ones essential to communication) and then feed it back into the battery. This isn’t a longterm solution: some energy will inevitably be lost through emitted waves alone, and you’ve got all the power being used running the internal components and lighting up the screen, among other issues. But
it means your battery runs down slower – 25- to 30 percent, the makers say.
These three in their present form – niche, semi-experimental, relatively costly, non-integrated, offering significant but not experience-changing increases to battery life and just generally a bit of a faff – are not enormously appealing to the average smartphone owner. But if we jump ahead 10 years, maybe less, imagine an iPhone with all three (and similar related tech) built discreetly into the case: harvesting energy from your bodily movements, from ambient light, and from the phone’s own emitted radio waves. To the extent that battery life ceases to be a concern – to the extent, perhaps, where mobile batteries become self-sustaining. What a thought.
We are indebted for the help we gained when writing the above thoughts to Technology Review’s helpful summary of the future of battery technology.
iPhones are that lethal combination of expensive and fragile that results in so much consumer heartache. The result is that each iPhone owner has to make their own deal with the devil: either wrapping it in a robust case, thereby masking the handsome design that they paid all that money for in the first place, or risk pavement damage every time they take the thing out of a pocket.
This may not be the case in the future, given the wide range of futuristic durable supermaterials that could be used on the iPhones of 2020. In this section we look at the design developments that could make the iPhone 9 and later tougher
than you could possibly imagine, as well as other fun changes to the exterior design.
iPhone screens are already far tougher than your average piece of glass (they’re made of a proprietary material called Gorilla Glass), but they do sometimes crack or even shatter when dropped. Sapphire screens would be more resistant still, and Apple is already using sapphire in the display of the Apple Watch: it’s possible that the company is now ready to import this material into its smartphone line-up.
Rumoured plans to rely on an Apple-backed sapphire plant in Arizona (which had the capacity to manufacture 200 million 5in iPhone displays per year) fell through. But more recent reports suggest that long-term Apple supplier Foxconn is gearing up to build its own sapphire plant in Taiwan at a cost of $2.6bn.
In the form of the Kambala, Ilshat Garipov of Yanko Design has come up with a mad concept: a smartphone that clips on to your ear, like a Bluetooth earpiece, and then changes colour to match the side of your face so that it becomes essentially invisible (see page 26).
To quote the firm: “A continuous flexi-screen with plenty of sensors makes up the surface and has the ability to transmit the image on the inside of the phone to the outside. It does a chameleon act by blending in with your skin tone when you clip it to your ear.”
It’s a bit like the invisible car in Die Another Day. And, needless to say, just a concept at this point. We love the idea, though.
In August 2016, it was reported by Patently Apple that Apple filed patents for a curved glass iPhone with virtual buttons on the sides. If accurate, this could be somewhat like the rumoured OLED bar on the expected new MacBook Pro, but time will tell.
The patent images also show a curved glass screen similar to that which we have now seen made popular by Samsung’s Galaxy S6 edge and S7 edge. This has helped to fuel the rumours that Apple is planning a major redesign for the iPhone to coincide with its tenth anniversary .
Either way, it’ll have to be significantly different to Samsung’s efforts to avoid Apple being accused of plagiarism. Then again, most smartphones of the past decade have aped the original iPhone, so we’re sure that wouldn’t prove problematic for Apple – particularly since these patents show its legal right to product the devices in this way.
In January 2015 Apple was awarded a patent that suggests that the company is investigating the idea of a flexible iPhone (and we’re not talking about the Bendgate kind).
The patent suggests that, by making the iPhone flexible, Apple could unlock a new range of controls: the user could open an app by bending the device in a particular way, for example, or use the flexibility to control a game. It’s an intriguing if seemingly far-fetched concept.
Additionally, a flexible iPhone flexible ought to be more resistant to impacts and therefore more durable. But we’ll discuss a key element in the idea of a flexible iPhone – a screen that can bend without breaking – in the screen tech section.
In November 2016 Apple was granted another patent for a bendable smartphone, sparking further speculation that the iPhone 8 or more realistically iPhone 9 could be designed with a folding chassis.
Patent 9,485,862, spotted by Patently Apple, refers somewhat obliquely to ‘Electronic devices with carbon nanotube printed circuits’: the carbon nanotubes are the means by which the devices can be folded. It was filed back in August 2014 but was finally granted on 1 November 2016.
“Carbon nanotubes may be patterned to form carbon nanotube signal paths on the substrates,” reads part of the patent’s summary. “The signal paths may resist cracking when bent. A bent portion of a carbon nanotube signal path may be formed in a portion of a flexible substrate that traverses a hinge or other flexible portion of an electronic device.”
Corning, the company that makes Gorilla Glass, responded to the looming threat of sapphire glass in early 2015 with the announcement of an ultrahardened composite material codenamed Project Phire. James Clappin, president of Corning Glass Technologies, told investors: “We told you last year that sapphire was great for scratch performance but didn’t fare well when dropped. So we created a product that offers the same superior damage resistance and drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 with scratch resistance that approaches sapphire.”
Sapphire glass is already being used on the nonSport models of the first-gen Apple Watch and on every model of the Apple Watch Series 2, and Project Phire appears to be in a reasonably advanced state of development, but we’re getting
closer to the realms of science-fiction. Graphite, the material used in standard pencils, is made up of stacks of sheets of carbon, each one only a single atom thick. This is why it’s so good for writing: the layers naturally slide off on to the paper.
But graphene is a different matter. Graphene is what you get if you’re clever enough to isolate one of the layers in graphite, leaving you with a substance that’s effectively two-dimensional. It’s the thinnest substance known to man, about a million times thinner than a human hair, and for that matter quite possibly the strongest (it’s 100 times stronger than steel) and a phenomenally good electrical conductor – 1,000 times better than copper. Oh, and it’s virtually transparent, too.
All of which makes graphene an exciting prospect for tech manufacturers. Most obviously, it would make for a tremendously durable coating material for the screen (and would lend itself to bendable displays, too) or indeed any part of the device; but it could really appear in almost any of the sections of this article. Graphene would be a superior replacement for silicon in processor chips, or could be used to make more efficient batteries and solar cells. It’s marvellous stuff.
We’re also pleased to report that graphene is British – sort of. It was discovered by the Sovietborn physicist Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, where it continues to be studied.
Let’s move on from the screen and talk about new durable materials for the rest of the iPhone.
How about a bit of drop-resistance? Based on patent activity, Apple is devising a viscoelastic material that would absorb impacts. The material would cover Apple devices and make them survive drops far better. The patent could make sense in all of Apple’s mobile devices and laptops, but the iPhone is the obvious area to begin.
The ability to spit out water
A patent published on 12 November 2015 suggests a peculiar but rather appealing solution to the waterlogging issue that has afflicted iPhones in the past (but shouldn’t in future, since the iPhone 7 is rated IP67 water-resistant): a mechanism that lets an iPhone dry itself by pumping liquid out through its speaker grills.
Patent application 20150326959 (pictured), wonderfully, is called ‘Liquid expulsion from an orifice’. “The embodiments described herein are directed to an acoustic module that is configured to remove all or a portion of a liquid that has accumulated within a cavity of the acoustic modules,” the patent’s summary reads.
The concept is centred around modules within the speaker cavities that can be made hydrophobic to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the charge applied to them: when liquid is detected, charges would be applied across the various modules in such a way that the liquid would be moved across the modules and ultimately expelled from the cavity.
Interestingly, Apple has used something along these lines in the Apple Watch Series 2, which can clear water out of its little speaker cavity by vibrating the speaker membrane:
The screen is an iPhone’s centrepiece and crowning glory: the medium via which you interact
with your phone and your phone tells you about the world. iPhones don’t historically tend to have the best screen resolution (despite the claims made on behalf of its proprietary Retina screen rating), but they are solidly sharp and highly responsive – and occasionally Apple evens adds new features, such as 3D Touch and Night Shift.
Here’s where we see the iPhone screen heading in the next few years.
According to a Wall Street Journal source, an iPhone in the near future may feature an edgeless display, but what is that, exactly? According to the publication, Apple is to redesign the iPhone for the 10th anniversary and that the changes “could include an edge-to-edge organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, screen” without a physical Home button. John Gruber also commented on the upcoming redesign, claiming that Apple is to remove the bezels surrounding the display, providing users with an iPhone that looks almost like a sheet of glass.
“I’ve heard this independently and it is completely getting rid of the chin and forehead of the phone,” Gruber said. “The entire face will be the display. And the Touch ID sensor will be somehow embedded in the display. The front-facing camera will somehow be embedded in the display. The speaker, everything. All the sensors will somehow be behind the display.
“What I don’t know, and I have no idea, is whether that means that they’re going to shrink the actual thing in your hand to fit the screen
sizes we already have, or whether they’re going to grow the screens to fit the devices we’re already used to holding… I don’t know.”
Flexible or curved display
The Nikkei report we linked to earlier predicts that autumn 2017 will see a massive triple iPhone launch, and that the flagship model of this trio will feature a curved OLED screen that curves down over the sides. This is something we’ve already seen on rival devices, such as Samsung’s S7 Edge and Note 7; it enables more screen space to be squeezed on to a device without making it any bigger, and you can also have notifications designed to be seen or activated on the edge of the screen.
Apple’s latest handsets: the iPhone 7 Plus and 7
An illustration from Apple’s new patent
A sheet of graphene