You can count on a few things when Apple unveils its latest iPhones: better cameras, faster processors, and intriguing new features. We got that with the iPhone 12, which Apple introduced in another socially distanced video keynote this week. And while there are new iPhones to buy later this month (the new models go on sale in 35+ countries on Oct. 23; some models and other countries follow later), it’s hard to resist a feeling of disappointment.
Apple is often criticized—unfairly—for each new product not being a transformational milestone. This is a hangover from the vertiginous pace of innovation it delivered in the late 2000s, when new iPhones changed the world every year, the iPad created the tablet market, and it brought other key technologies to widespread use. But that was a blip, a moment in history created by a convergence of factors that pushed technology forward quickly. Apple can’t be expected to deliver world-changing products every decade, let alone every year.
The appeal of the iPhone 12 seems to rest primarily on its support for 5G. These iPhones pack in many useful advancements—the notably improved screen and camera support Smart HDR 3, improved night and Portrait modes, a tougher screen—but other than 5G, things seem mostly incremental.
Add in that we’re still awaiting a large-scale, irresistible use case for 5G and that its speeds are a fraction of what they will be eventually, and it’s hard to get that excited (especially writing from the woods of Southern Vermont where I barely get a 4G signal in my house). Apple even subtly acknowledged that 5G isn’t yet truly essential: The iPhone 12 only uses 5G when you “need” it and otherwise defaults to 4G LTE to save battery life.
Of course, the iPhone 12 delivers notable under-the-hood improvements: a processor that’s up to 50% faster than any other smartphone chip; a machine learning chip that’s bumped from 8 to 16 processing core; a GPU that also boasts a 50% bump in speed. The phones also have improved wireless charging and the iPhone 12 Mini offers a 5.4-inch screen and an appealing US$699 price tag.
Beneath the post-announcement deflation, there’s an important note about the future for both Apple and mobile technology. The iPhone 12 Pro models include LiDAR, the same technology used in spatial sensing and mapping in autonomous vehicles (recent iPad Pros have it, too). On the iPhone, it will deliver better low-light photography (mapping the space in front of the camera means low-light photos don’t just rely on available light or computational enhancements) and, crucially, for improved augmented reality experiences.
Apple’s other headline product, the $99 HomePod Mini, delivers more spatial awareness. It uses Apple’s U1 ultra-wideband chip to detect the location of other nearby Apple devices with that chip (among other applications). For now, that’s the iPhone 11 and 12, and Apple Watch Series 6. Considering how many of us walk around an iPhone in our pockets or an Apple Watch on our wrists, that means that the HomePod Mini will, in effect, be able to know where we are in a house—another useful kind of spatial mapping to deliver intelligent features.
This awareness of surroundings is a useful foundation for building experiences. Not that Apple is likely to open that foundation to brands or marketers—the company continues to invest in its popular-with-consumers, hated-by-advertisers privacy and anti-tracking technologies—but that foundation will be important for Apple’s most-anticipated unannounced product: its much-rumored augmented reality glasses.
Apple builds the foundations of its major technological changes one plank at a time, over the course of multiple products. Consider the Touch ID fingerprint scanner. It was introduced in 2013 on the iPhone 5S as a nice way to secure devices. But when it became the way to authenticate contactless payments with Apple Pay in 2014, that investment paid off.
Expect to see Apple’s emphasis on its devices understanding the physical world more fully realized when the AR glasses debut (2022, according to some rumors). When that happens, we probably won’t be worried about whether the iPhone 12 was exciting enough (and 5G will play a big role in delivering AR content). Apple’s next world-changing technology will have arrived.