Look­ing to the iPhone 9 and be­yond

David Price re­veals what the fu­ture could hold

iPad&iPhone user - - CONTENTS -

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.

Lithium-air bat­ter­ies

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.

Mo­tion charg­ing

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’.

So­lar

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.

En­ergy har­vest­ing

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.

Phys­i­cal de­sign

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.

Sap­phire

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.

Chameleon de­sign

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.

Curved de­sign

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.

Bend­able iPhone

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.”

Project Phire

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.”

Graphene

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.

Vis­coelas­tic ma­te­rial

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:

Screen devel­op­ments

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.

Edge­less dis­play

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

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