How Apple is already moving past the iPhone 7

Apple is all about skating to where the puck is going, not where it's been. Here's one theory about Apple's next steps.

Come Friday, Apple will start selling the iPhone 7, but all anyone wants to talk about is the next one. Even before Phil Schiller showed off the new iPhone’s cameras and jet black body, rumors about the so-called 10th anniversary phone had already blunted much of the excitement about this year’s model.

If even half of what’s been reported comes true, the 2017 iPhone is going to be bigger than the last three models put together: OLED, edge-to-edge screen, wireless charging, and in-display Touch ID, just to tick off the highlights. But the iPhone 7 isn’t just a way for Apple to squeeze a couple hundred million more sales out of the iPhone 6 before the company unveils the next truly big thing. It might seem like a relatively minor refresh on the surface, but there’s no reason to panic about Apple’s ability to innovate.

Quite the contrary. From the technology inside it to the potential it presents, the iPhone 7 is simply part of a new phase for Apple, one that looks to be far more ambitious than the iPod, the iPhone, or even the Macintosh. And no matter how great the next iPhone looks, chances are we’ll be using it a whole lot less.

Power move

The launch of the iPhone was one of the most masterfully-crafted pivots in tech history. Before then, Apple was widely viewed as a niche computer company that got lucky with the iPod. Even after the iPhone was unveiled, few people saw it coming, despite a massive teaser on Apple.com in the days leading up to the event: The first 30 years were just the beginning. Welcome to 2007.

first30years David Sinclair, Flickr

Plus, it with the launch of the iPhone that Apple dropped the word Computer from its official company name, solidifying its fate as a consumer electronics company and resetting its core business by pushing the Mac to the background. You need only look at the languishing lineup today to see how little Macs matter to Apple’s new mission.

While everyone was debating whether the iPhone was too expensive or too limited, Apple was preparing for a world ruled by pocket-sized devices able to handle many of the everyday tasks we turn to computers for. Apple took everything it had learned over three decades of Mac development and applied it to a new form of technology that fit much better into our lives. The iPhone didn’t just displace the Mac—it gave Apple the ability to expand its vision and move beyond the PC phase. And less than 10 years after the second phase began, Apple is already laying the foundation for the next one.

Dashboard dynamics

With over 1 billion served and droves of developers dependent on the App Store, Apple’s next phase won’t necessarily be about supplanting the iPhone. But we won’t be using it nearly as much. Just like the Apple Watch has begun to reduce the number of times we need to reach into our pockets, Apple’s next phase will make us even less reliant on the iPhone.

Whether we’re talking about cables or iCloud, Apple’s goal for its devices has always been operational independence. Over the past few iOS versions, Apple has been working to enhance and expand the iOS experience, giving hands-free Siri a central role while de-emphasizing the importance of our apps. You can see it with the Apple Watch and the new AirPods, but nowhere is this more evident than with the CarPlay system. Just like the iPhone was imagined as something of a stripped-down and distilled version of macOS, CarPlay boils iOS down to its most essential functions and takes focused navigation completely out of the equation. Apps are present but they’re wholly unnecessary—the integrated system is what matters.

rtx2okar Reuters

The rub, of course, is that Apple doesn’t have control over the hardware. But remember, back when the iPhone was just a pie-in-the-sky rumor, Apple’s first venture into cellphones was in the form of a partnership with Motorola on the ROKR E1, a clunky effort to bring iTunes to mobile devices beyond the iPod. CarPlay is something similar, an effort by Apple to explore a new product category without diving in too deep.

While the ROKR wasn’t a success, it wasn’t a failure either. It gave Apple intimate knowledge of how to design and develop for mobile phones, and helped prepare for a major shift in strategy. And it looks like Apple is doing the same thing with CarPlay as it prepares to enter the world of automobiles.

Pursuit of perfection

With dozens of manufacturers and models, CarPlay is a far more ambitious venture than the ROKR ever was. And so is Project Titan, the code name for Apple’s next venture into the car space. A mobile phone is somewhat in Apple’s wheelhouse, but an automobile is a whole new entity. It’s not just a new product category, it’s a new company, one that might very well require a separate Apple Motors division.

It’s a move that’s going to take several more years at least, and it’s why we keep reading about shakeups and false starts. Had Apple been as scrutinized when the iPhone was being developed, the headlines likely would have been similar. As the saying goes, to make an omelet you need to break a few eggs, and Apple has both the capital and the clout to hire, fire, scrutinize, and scrap projects until the size and scope is just right.

chevy volt carplay mho 008 22 Adam Patrick Murray

In the meantime, Apple will continue to push the iPhone into the background. It’s not about what it looks like or how powerful the camera is—the ultimate plan here is to turn the iPhone into a portable smart hub that powers all of the devices in our lives, whether they’re on our wrists, in our ears, or in our cars.

Driving innovation

Project Titan is more than just a new way to get around—it wants to expand its integration beyond the devices we carry around. Apple Watch is the beginning, but it won’t be long before that always-on, frictionless methodology makes its way to Apple TV.

But make no mistake—Project Titan is the centerpiece. By the time Tim Cook is ready to drive the mythical Apple car onto the stage of the Campus 2 theater, he won’t just be selling a vehicle. It’ll be about a lifestyle, not merely in terms of status and luxury, but as a technology that it always at the ready wherever you go.

And while an iPhone may will presumably be required at the outset, it won’t be for very long. Like the current crop of Macs, Apple’s next phase will be about pushing the iPhone to the background as input-based devices become secondary to cloud-based services and devices that don’t need dedicated screens to anticipate and respond to our needs.

So while the new iPhone might not live up to the lofty expectations Apple has set for the better part of a decade, that doesn’t mean Tim Cook and Jony Ive are out of ideas. It just means they’re skating to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.

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Michael Simon

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