You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

The iPhone 7 Is a Fundamental Redesign

Another year, another iPhone.
Apple Announces
September 9, 2016

Another replaceable chunk out of a finite and rapidly passing product cycle.


That’s the mood pervading the blogosphere (and the stockosphere,) on the heels of Apple’s latest iPhone reveal. Most critics and investors are turning a cold shoulder to what is widely perceived as an inadequate and insubstantial feature bump where everyone was apparently expecting a radically different handset. And given Apple’s history with its naming conventions (whole numbers for massive hardware revisions and “s” suffixes in the internally improved interim), that’s understandable. At least superficially.

But it’s also pretty silly, particularly coming from those in the tech world. (Investors are a different breed of sheep. See the recent Nintendo/Niantic fiasco re: Pokemon Go for proof of that.)

Anyone who’s spent any time at all covering Apple kit — or mobile kit in general — understands that the iPhone has evolved for nearly a decade now. The device’s changing technical needs — as well as its ergonomic considerations — have been on a fairly predictable roadmap for the entire time. It took Apple ages to expand the iPhone’s display, and the company only dipped a toe with the iPhone 5, going taller but not wider. Of course, this was a stopgap to get the company to the iPhone 6, which firmly established what most Apple aficionados considered the final word on the screen’s size and dimension debates. When these models hit, most users were openly of the opinion that, yep, this is it, this is where the figures will settle. And I think that’s as true now as it seemed two years ago. Now, I’m not discounting a tall four-incher like the iPhone 5 coming back to take the tertiary minimalist market, but the two options available now will still be available five or 10 years from now. There’s just not that much room for “improvement” within that aspect (ratio) of the line.

One of my friends who pays more attention to this stuff than I do suggested I hold off on getting the iPhone 7, that next year’s 10th Anniversary model will pack in all the bleeding edge goodies fanboys and -girls were hoping for in this year’s model. Here’s what the iPhone 7s (8?) is expected to sport, according to a list he sent me:

  • OLED display
  • Faster A11 processor
  • Glass body
  • Edge-to-edge display
  • Camera and Touch ID integrated in the display
  • No Home button
  • Wireless charging
  • Three models – One OLED, two standard

LOL, no.

Too many of those items — special anniversary edition or not — are foundational “selling point” alterations. Apple has never included more than one or two per numerical bump, keeping the in-between models externally identical while boosting their guts to the current state of the art. An edge-to-edge display will be its own thing. The feature will likely cut the iPhone side bezels down to a millimeter or so, but it’ll be a while longer still before the top and bottom bezels go the way of the dodo. It’s when that happens — and only then — that we’ll see integrated Camera and Touch ID sensors under the display glass. Ditto for the Home button. Think about it: Apple didn’t make the thing totally solid state with complex haptic feedback for a one-or two-year production run. (This particular tech is pretty awesome; I have it in my MacBook Pro, and you’d swear you were depressing the trackpad on top of some kind of spring mount the way it “clicks,” but you aren’t.) Similarly, when the Home button is eliminated, that will be an even more profound shift in the structure and presentation of the iPhone itself. The death of an icon! As far as a full glass enclosure, that’s believable and could happen any time. Apple plays with structural materials almost constantly, so whenever they introduce this feature, it’ll probably play second fiddle to something else. Same for OLED displays and wireless charging, albeit I’m skeptical about the latter happening any time soon as the sole charging mechanism (and buddy charging better be a thing whenever induction happens — Can I get like five percent battery, man?). The Lightning port is going to be here for several more years at the very least. It’s a multibillion-dollar business all by itself, you know.

And you know what else? If you objectively take all of the above into consideration, I think you’ll agree it’s pretty apparent that this year’s new iPhone is indeed worthy of its “7” moniker. It’s a significant hardware revision. In fact, between getting rid of the headphone port and going Taptic on the Home button, I’d argue that this particular version represents a larger hardware leap than iPhone to iPhone 3G, iPhone 3Gs to iPhone 4, or iPhone 4s to iPhone 5. It’s true that all of those jumps featured physical differences that clearly and immediately separated them from their predecessors, but sometimes real change happens in places we dont expect or even see at first. Shedding the 3.5mm jack is a watershed moment in the mobile industry, and it’s a change that many people (myself included) saw coming a long time ago. It’s such a huge paradigm shift, in fact, that hordes of music-loving Apple fans are freaking out about the perceived blunder the move really and truly isn’t. I’m glad to see the thing go. To me, getting rid of that space-hogging moisture pit warrants the name change in and of itself.

But that’s not all Apple did with the new iPhone: The rear camera (on the flagship 7 Plus, anyway) is another foundational hardware improvement, warranting — again in and of itself — the name change. Remember, the iPhone long ago became the best-selling and most popular shooter on the planet. A dual lens, low-light-loving, 2X optical zoom update to the world’s number one camera? Yes please!

Now add waterproofing (or, more specifically, water resistance) to the mix along with improved antennas, two extra hours of battery life, stereo speakers providing twice the previous model’s substantial max volume, a quad-core 64-bit brain, and a smattering of other goodies, and you’ve got a profoundly different machine than anything that’s come before. Plus, there’s Apple’s AirPod technology that, thank the various gods, isn’t Bluetooth. (Bluetooth audio is complete garbage. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.)

But evidently, all that isn’t enough.

And I just don’t get it.


Folks, the simple truth is this: If you’re expecting your new iPhones to look dramatically different every couple of years going forward, you’ll probably be perpetually disappointed. Honestly, where can the design go?

I know it’s easy to look at something and lazily proclaim that stagnation is here to stay, that there is simply no further room for innovation. Usually, I’d pity the claimant and his or her sad lack of imagination. Most products in the consumer electronics realm have a distinct design aspect that changes with the tastes of the times. Televisions and stereos and video game consoles and the like revolve around redesigns that are immediately noticeable. After all, these things are largely looked upon as furniture because they’re in your face whether they’re on or off.

But smartphones don’t necessarily work that way. Sure, they did at first, and even now, they can. Perhaps if Apple made 20 different handsets across five or six categories, the iPhone would evolve along this same path. Perhaps if they’d go the Samsung or LG or Moto routes, there would be room to play around with all kinds of different, kitschy hardware considerations. Ive’s team could stick a second screen on the back of the iPhone, maybe even in the Apple logo itself. Maybe iPhone could copy the Galaxy Note Edge Whatever and have some weird 45-degree slanted screen embedded in the bezel, wedging a few pixels down to touch the tabletop whenever your phone does. (I guess you could use this as a ruler in a pinch, or it could be a clock/weather ticker perfectly visible on your nightstand as you peek out from under your covers to flail at that infernal buzzing.) But whatever any such gimmicks would be or could do, they’ll always be superfluous. For companies that aren’t Apple, this kind of innovation — useless as it is — might very well be important. In a sea of $600-plus smartphones, the market’s runners-up and also-rans need to differentiate in small ways to remain relevant. I get that. Heck, I’m glad for it. It keeps things interesting.

But that’s not Apple’s game. On the contrary, Apple would have to initiate a complete reversal of its established industrial design philosophies to entertain those ideas. To me, there is only one logical conclusion to iPhone hardware, and I wrote about it last year while knee-deep in Apple’s wearables experiment. Here’s what I said then, in an article about Apple Watch being a test bed for new iPhone features:

Once Touch ID can be embedded beneath solid bezel glass instead of localized on a small moving part that gaps the build of iPhone and iPad, Force Touch can then be used — in the bottom central region of said devices — to activate unlocks, app downloads, Apple Pay, etc. This would summarily eliminate the home button, which is something Jobs publicly pined after on an almost yearly basis since 2007 up until his passing. The same applies to side buttons, should Apple find that necessary. But that might be a hard sell without some sort of tactile feedback for the end user.

To wit, the Taptic Engine! …

As with Force Touch, the Taptic Engine is already present in new MacBook and MacBook Pro trackpads, and the effect — virtualizing the tactile movement for both normal clicks and deeper Force Touch clicks — is impressively convincing. Still, there’s immediate potential for the feature to be even more useful and impactful once it’s baked into iPhone and iPad. From making games more engaging to granting alerts more specificity to giving virtual button clicks that distinct hardware feel, the Taptic Engine will be the haptic end of Force Touch across Apple’s entire mobile family. …

Magnetic inductive charging is certainly the future for all Apple mobiles, and further down the line — and in the interest of further refining that aforesaid purity of design — I can see iPhone and iPad eliminating their headphone ports altogether. Except for a speaker grille and microphone pinhole, these slates will then be smooth and unbroken all the way around. They could be made to be totally ambidextrous, too. The home, volume, and power toggles would be where the user decides, and in the event that a central, screen-embedded camera comes to fruition, nobody will ever again know which way is up. Because every way would be up, including Apple’s market cap.

- Andy Faust, WatchAware

As far as I can figure, a perfectly symmetrical, unbroken, screwless, buttonless slab of glass is iPhone’s logical conclusion. That last word in particular is important, as Apple is in absolutely no hurry to reach that point. And why should they be?

After all, nobody seems to think the iPhone 7 is different enough. Just imagine the complaints a few years down the road.

But does anyone really want a different form factor? Does anyone really want right-angle edges again? A convex backside? Moving parts to break and holes to let water in? Do you want a round phone? An oval phone? A square phone? A rhombus? Sure, maybe the iPhone corner radius will change a bit over the years, but that’s peanuts, a change for change’s sake. Those aren’t always necessary, and there’s honestly nothing drastic to be done that alters the look of what Apple’s spent over a decade putting together. I expect that, as with Apple Watch, most of the aesthetics of the device itself will focus their points of impact on finish options and construction materials. It’s actually already started, as Apple’s introduced two extra colorways for iPhone 7, and while the glossy Jet Black looks pretty slick (a little too slick?), I’ll stick with the plainer — but just as new and distinctive (even if you can’t see it because it’s in a protective plastic case like every iPhone ever, which renders this entire 2200-word missive pretty much moot) — matte Black.

Truth be told, my iPhone 6 is perfectly adequate. It runs everything I need, and it runs it all quickly. When Hurricane Hermine hit north Florida last week and knocked my whole town off the grid for five days, I used my iPhone as the central hub for my iPad, laptop, and Xbox, sometimes running multiple devices at once. It never missed a beat. (Too bad I no longer have unlimited data, but them’s the breaks.) So I dont really need a new iPhone. But I’m upgrading anyways.

Because the iPhone 7 really does seem that much better.

TL;DR: courtesy of Federico Viticci from MacStories:

The iPhone 7 looks amazing.

I can’t wait for the iPhone 8.