How Apple Can Take the iPhone to the Next Level

Stronger glass, better cameras, longer battery life, and other improvements I still want to see in the iPhone

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately about the iPhone — or just phones in general — being “good enough.” The argument is that most of our phones already do most of the things most of the people need most of the time. Apple, Samsung, Google, and everyone else should just chill out and stop updating them every year. iPhone 12? Who needs it. It’s exhausting. Enough already.

But are phones really good enough?

Maybe the iPhone (even the hotly rumored upcoming iPhone 12) and maybe all current and expected phones this year are just scratching the surface of their potential.

Design

We’re already seeing some cameras and sensors move behind the display and I expect that’ll continue until all we’re left with is a clean, clear screen, bezel-free for as far as the eye can see.

But what we really need are screens that won’t get scratched or break as easily as they do now. The iPhone is practically responsible for bringing Corning’s Gorilla Glass to mainstream phones, and that ion-exchange chemistry still requires a lot of tuning between strength and hardness, but they still scratch and crack.

The sapphire that covers Apple Watch screens has proven much more resilient. Apple did try to bring sapphire glass to the iPhone. The company even built an entire factory to make it work, but the economics didn’t scale. At least not back then.

But, I’m hoping very much that Apple and other manufacturers haven’t stopped trying with sapphire or with other potential hybrids, because our phones really do need to become more resilient. They also shouldn’t be slipping out of our hands and off tables and pretty much everything else so damn always.

Glass backs have been a blessing when it comes to inductive charging, but starting with the Nexus 4, continuing with the iPhones 8 through 11, and perhaps culminating in the frictionless devilry that is the Galaxy Flip, glass backs have also been a curse when it comes to falling off of everything.

There have been various attempts over the years to texture the glass surfaces, including the recent iPhone 11 Pro’s matte finish. And, while they look cool, they haven’t made much if any significant difference to the slipperiness.

And really, they should. Because we should be able to put our phones down on anything approaching a flat surface without having to worry about them sliding off and crashing to the floor. Whether the glass shatters or not, we die a little inside every time it happens.

Most of our phones already do most of the things most of the people need most of the time.

Cameras

Step-by-step, Apple has been introducing slightly better optics and much better image signal processors and machine learning algorithms to make the tiny sensors and glass on our iPhones more like the massive sensors and glass on dedicated cameras. But it still has a ways to go.

Somewhere between deep fusion and Night Mode, iPhone photos can still get really, really noisy in low light. Also, there’s still very little in the way of real zoom. iPhone 7 gave us two times optical zoom, but we haven’t gotten anything better since. Meanwhile, Samsung, Huawei, and others have added periscope cameras for far, far higher levels of optical zoom and Google has leveraged their HDR+ for Super Res, vastly improving their digital zoom.

If we want to take photos of kids or pets playing in the park — one day, when we can all play in parks again — we just can’t sneaker zoom, not all the time. We need cameras that can zoom for us. It’s one of the last remaining things an average point-and-shoot camera can still do better than the best iPhone.

I also wouldn’t mind seeing neutral density (ND) filtering. ND filters are typically used on bright days when we’re shooting outside, and we want to limit the amount of light that gets captured, so we can avoid things like blowing out the sky, while still keeping the accuracy of the colors. You know, like sunglasses for your camera.

Smart HDR on the iPhone already does a pretty great job at handling bright, outdoor captures. It basically exposes for both light and dark. But, with a few levels of ND available, it could work even better in an even wider range of conditions. OnePlus showed off a concept phone at CES earlier this year that used electrochromic glass not only to hide the camera lenses but also to provide for ND filtering. That kind of tech could eventually provide us with the opposite of Night Mode — a bright mode.

Authentication

We got Touch ID with the iPhone 5s, Face ID with the iPhone X, and then Touch ID again with the new iPhone SE. And, they’re both good. They’re both fine. Face ID is more transparent than Touch ID, but Face ID currently doesn’t work well with the masks many of us are wearing these days when we go out. Likewise, Touch ID doesn’t work with gloves, either winter or medical, and can be a pain when we wash our hands a lot. By themselves, neither form of biometrics are perfect.

We need multiple biometrics. We need our phones to take glances of our facial geometry, snippets of our voice, touches of our fingerprints. We need it to read our gaits when we’re walking and build a threshold-based trust system that is able to keep our phones unlocked when the device is certain that we are us and only challenges us for a scan if it is not. That way, regardless of what we’re wearing or doing, we’re never the ones locked out of our own phones.

Somewhere between deep fusion and Night Mode, iPhone photos can still get really, really noisy in low light.

Performance

I think Apple makes pretty much the best silicon in mobile these days. If anything, the only problem with Apple’s A-series processors is that they’re so performant they can burn down older and smaller batteries much faster than older, less performant processors.

RAM is still a problem. RAM is random access memory and it’s different from storage. RAM is like the amount of stuff we can actively juggle with our hands at any one time. Storage, like SSD, is the amount of stuff we can stack up on shelves, to give our hands a rest. Because there’s only so much we can juggle at one time, when something new is added, something old gets dropped.

Because iOS uses native apps, doesn’t have an interpretation layer, and doesn’t do things like garbage collection, the iPhone has been able to get away with less RAM than other phones. But, to make it all work, apps are supposed to play nicely and not take too much RAM to begin with and not hold onto the RAM any longer than they have to.

That was fine when we were dealing with ye olde apps of yore, but it just doesn’t work in the age of massively nonoptimized social networking apps, cross-compiled online games, and apps that are basically their own interpreters as well, like web browsers with their near-limitless tabs, and cameras, depending on how much data they’re ingesting and processing — which is more and more with each new model. Those kinds of loads make those kinds of apps last one switch, maybe two, and then they inevitably start relaunching and reloading.

Recently, Apple has begun handling this problem the way Android phone makers have been handling it for years — by adding more and more RAM. If the rumors are true, the iPhone 12 Pro will feature 6GB of RAM. But that comes with overhead of its own.

Some Android phones have also begun letting us stick apps in memory so they never jettison. But that’s like taping items to our hands when we juggle. It just reduces the amount of space for anything else we might want or need to juggle.

I don’t know what the best solution is here. Maybe these massive online social and gaming apps should do a better job buffering and preserving state, so that they don’t panic and reload or relaunch, even if we go back to them much, much later. This means we might be able to interact with them or at least have some semblance of interacting with them while they update transparently in the background.

More and better

It goes without saying that battery life could always be better. We all want some giant revolution in battery chemistry that lets us charge once a week or month instead of twice a day or every couple of days. And it couldn’t hurt to have improved neural networks that let us even better optimize the battery chemistry we have now.

These are just some of the areas where I think the iPhone 11, even the rumored next iPhone — all phones, basically — simply aren’t good enough. Not yet.

Apple and related technology and culture. News analysis and insight: https://www.youtube.com/reneritchie

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