26 April 2017
The iPhone rumour mill is in a weird spot this year. By early April, we normally have a pretty good consensus on what Apple’s upcoming devices will look like. I think a lot of people forget just how accurate the Weibo leaks have been in the past.
For this year, the gist of Apple’s strategy is by no means a surprise. Three phones, two iterative component updates and one major new flagship with a chassis redesign and 5.8-inch OLED screen. There have also been repeated claims of wireless charging and 3D-sensing front cameras as headline features for the premium device. Even on the verge of May, though, there is not a clear idea of what the iPhone 8 (or iPhone Pro, iPhone X, whatever it’s called) will look like.
Two different designs have been circulating around the web. One is from a schematic supposedly leaked from Foxconn, a couple weeks ago. It describes an iPhone with a hole in the aluminium back, presumably a rear Touch ID sensor, and a front with no side bezels. Frankly, it looks a lot like a Galaxy S8 with an Apple logo.
The other leading rumour represents a much bigger leap in iPhone design — a curved composition of stainless steel and glass, with an OLED display that dominates the entire front face. The speaker pokes through the top of the screen and all other components like the fingerprint reader and FaceTime cameras are apparently integrated behind the display. It comes together to make this seamless curved pebble shape. Bloomberg has noted that Apple is heading towards a design using stainless steel and glass but it isn’t clear if this is what it was referring to exactly.
I have no insider information about this but I would be disappointed if the first design was the real thing. Apple has used the same chassis design for three years since the iPhone 6. The device described by the first set of schematics isn’t really that different from what we’ve been living with; it’s too conservative for my appetite.
Features and performance are nice but aesthetics and materials define an iPhone generation. The iPhone 4 sticks out in everyone’s mind because it looked like no other smartphone had done before. There is so much anticipation for the 2017 iPhone and a conservative chassis change is not going to sufficiently answer that hype.
This is why I’m inclined to board the second rumour train, the one with an iPhone 8 that uses all new materials, stretches the screen into every corner of the front face and magically reads my fingerprint from beneath the display. If you believe the leak unreservedly, the FaceTime cameras and IR sensors are also integrated into the screen, so that all four bezels — horizontal and vertical — are a mere 4mm in size. That is an iPhone industrial design that will leave a lasting impression.
The Galaxy S8 is a feeble effort in comparison to what these leaks suggest; Samsung’s phone relies on an inelegant back sensor for fingerprint reading and still has significant top and bottom bezels. The Apple design sounds like fiction, like it’s too good to be true and maybe it is. I certainly struggle to believe the components-under-display malarkey.
Nevertheless, that is the kind of update I think Apple needs to deliver. Something that doesn’t look like anything else available and puts a flag in the metaphorical ground. The need for something major becomes even more important if Apple plans to re-use this design for multiple years like they did with iPhone 6. It also needs to justify its premium price tag.
All of the specific details about the bullish iPhone 8 design come from the same source so there isn’t any corroboration to draw from … but there are tidbits here and there that indicate Apple has something significant in the offing.
Yesterday, Nikkei posted an article claiming Samsung Display was struggling to make OLED panels that meet Apple’s specifications. KGI’s Ming-Chi Kuo has also noted that Apple is ordering ‘custom’ panels and all-new 3D Touch modules. Nikkei also said the iPhone 8 circuit boards are significantly different (smaller) than previous generations. The pebble design seems like it would necessitate custom displays and major miniaturisation whereas the conservative rumour would not.
There have also been numerous reports about delays and production problems, so much so many analysts claim the device won’t launch in the usual September timeframe. Maybe it’s wishful thinking but the propensity for minor redesigns to have yield issues is low, whereas the likelihood of holdups due to readying fundamentally-new components is much greater.
Thinking at a higher level, Apple is all-but-confirmed to be debuting three iPhones later this year. Two will be almost identical to the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus from the outside. Knowing that the 8 will be the new high-end device, it’s almost required to have a major new design just so it can set itself apart from the ‘7s’ models.
Apple does not want to let people feel like the iterative phones are good enough, so that people save their dollars and get the ‘almost-as-good’ new phones. What you want is customers to go ‘wow this iPhone 8 is so new and so much better’, it’s more expensive but it’s worth it. A major, radical, advancement in exterior appearance is the best way to achieve that.