We've had a ton of leaks, a ton of spoilers, a bunch of renders on twitter and grafs in business pubs. But Apple hasn't announced the iPhone 11 yet. Tim Cook hasn't shown it off on stage. Phil Schiller hasn't gone over all its feature slides.
Oh yeah, It's that time of year again. Apple's annual iPhone event is only a couple of weeks away and we already have some people tripping all over themselves to tell you how boring and must-skippable it's just gotta be.
And, while I'm going to focus on Apple and the upcoming iPhone 11 Pro for this, please feel free to extrapolate it out to the just-announced Galaxy Note 10 and still pending Google Pixel 4 as well.
Now, I'm going to break this down into two parts — the phones and the market.
First, the phones.
Since the original iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPhone 3GS, Apple's been working on 4-year cycles. A major design change and then several years of refinement and mostly internal iteration.
You could break the 4 and 4s and 5 and 5S apart if you really want to, but they're really very similar platforms. Squared off designs, Retina displays, custom processors, better cameras.
Then came the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8, and their Plus sizes. All curved designs, bigger LCD displays, escalating processors, and even better cameras, especially starting with the 7 Plus.
Now we're fully in the age of iPhone X. Edge-to-mostly edge designs, OLED displays, neural engine processors, and even better cameras… wait for it… just… especially starting with the 11 Pro.
Ignore all the noise and the click thirst. The absolute best way to think about the iPhone 11 Pro is to think back to the iPhone 7. Specifically, the iPhone 7 Plus.
Two years after a terrifically successful new design, Apple kept the same design for the third year in a row, but gave it some cool new finishes and, more importantly, a significantly better camera. Their first dual-camera system, with optical zoom and computational depth effects.
Apple's always been pretty good about shipping feature sets, not chipsets. They didn't just throw NFC radios into the iPhone 6, they introduce Apple Pay. And they didn't just cram a telephoto camera into the iPhone 7 Plus, they introduced optical zoom and portrait mode.
This year, rumors of cool new frosted finishes aside, the big rumor is a third camera.
And sure, that's been done before, but often without any consideration for consistency or color science or overall experience.
With Apple, it's a safe bet their imaging pipeline, which they've built up from the sensor to the custom storage controller to the individually calibrated screens, will just handle it.
And we'll get optical "zoom-out" the way we've had optical "zoom-in", and the ability to do computational frame effects the way we've been able to do computational depth effects since the iPhone 7 Plus.
Mark Gurman and Debby Wu of Bloomberg have been reporting that all three cameras will fire all the same time, and machine learning will let you correct composition if, for example, you accidentally cut part of a person out of a shot, or didn't exactly center the subject the way you wanted to.
Which is something I've had to deal with even on this channel when I'm offside and can't center myself up without exposing the edge of the frame or zooming in, losing data, and making my head look even goofier than it already is.
Also, I'm guessing thanks to bigger sensors, that the photos will be much higher resolution, rivaling traditional cameras, and have better low-light. Which Apple absolutely needs to keep up with Google and Huawei.
And, the already industry-leading video camera capabilities will get boosted as well, getting many of the same features as the stills, and in real-time.
Ok, so, I can already feel a lot of you hitting the comments and saying yeah but how ugly that giant module housing it all is. And you know what? You're absolutely right. It's hideously, freakishly ugly. Like an alien face-hugger latched onto your phone.
Other companies are putting them in straight horizontal or vertical lines, which may or may not be more subjectively pleasing to you. Other companies are taking a page out of the Nokia Lumia 1020 and putting it dead center. Don't even ask me what Nokia is doing with this…
But Apple wants all three cameras equidistant to enable its new features, and has other stuff like the True Depth sensors in the middle, so this is how they're fitting it all in.
And as camera phones increasingly become phone cameras, the growths are only going to grow. At least until the next big revolution.
Now, the iPhone 7 had Apple's first efficiency.performance fusion processor with the A10. The iPhone 11 is supposedly going to have Apple's first AMX or Matrix processor for computer vision and augmented reality.
The iPhone 7 was Apple's first, official, water-resistant model. The iPhone 11 will supposedly be dramatically more water resistant, beyond even the current 30-minute rating. And shatter resistant. Take that, built-in-obsolencecers.
The iPhone 7 had a virtualized home button and… that's where I have to stop stretching this already beyond torn metaphor. But the iPhone 11, while not having a virtualized notch, will supposedly have a much better, multi-angle Face ID system that'll unlock earlier, faster, and from a much wider variety of angles, including while lying flat on tables.
Add to that rumors of reverse inductive charging, so you can top-up compatible AirPods by placing them on top of the phone, and, as apres-S years go, this one is shaping up to be the most compelling since, well, the last one. The iPhone 7. And maybe even more so than that.
And, while pundits love to tell us just how boring, iterative, and skippable S-years are, when I asked all of you to tell me all your favorite iPhones, the S-years won like gangbusters. 6 our of 7 rounds. Not even close. 5s was second, 4s third, 7 Plus forth, 6s fifth, 3GS, sixth.
So, yeah, there's that fundamental disconnect between coverage and customers again.
Which brings me to…
Second, the market
Apple made a mistake last year. When they originally experimented with testing the upper feature and price limits of the iPhone, they didn't do it by making the iPhone more expensive they did it by making more expensive iPhones.
Let me explain.
The iPhone 5s was succeeded by the iPhone 6. But, on top of the iPhone 6, Apple added a more expensive iPhone as well — the iPhone 6 Plus.
Slowly, over the next couple of years, Apple added features and expense to the Plus models, like that second camera and extra score of dollars, and we largely rewarded them for it. We made the more expensive iPhones the best sellers.
Even when Apple introduced the iPhone X in 2017, they did it on top of the also new iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. In other words, the more expensive model was still marketed on top of what people considered the standard model. It was never marketed as the standard model. Those expectations were never upset.
Until the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max.
Apple had tried marketing less expensive iPhones before. The iPhone 5c was meant to contrast with the typical blockbuster-movie like regular iPhone, which spiked huge at launch and then slid down until the inevitable sequel spiked huge again.
The 5c was supposed to be more like a TV show, on shelves, in iPod-like packaging, just selling… everyday… for less. But we didn't buy it. Again, we told Apple what we wanted was the more expensive iPhone, not a less expensive one.
Last year, though, with the thousand-dollar iPhone XS poised to become the new normal, Apple tried undercutting it again, this time with the just as colorful but differently compromised iPhone XR.
And, while, yes, they'd named themselves into a corner, and the iPhone XR ended up being super popular, and the market as a whole was approaching saturation, expectations ended up being upset.
The XS was seen as the new normal and the XR as something underneath it. And some customers felt like they were being priced out.
That margins were down from their 2012 peaks, that sales were largely flat overall, that we're keeping phones longer making the amortized cost better, none of the actual financial analysis mattered. The narrative was that phones in general and iPhones, in particular, had become far too expensive.
Enter the iPhone Pro.
You know, I saw a few people wonder out loud why Samsung called the latest Galaxy Notes the Note 10 and Note 10 Plus instead of making the plus the regular Note 10 and positioning the smaller one as the Note 10e beneath it, like the S10e was positioned beneath the regular S10. And credit where it's due — I think Samsung was super smart the way they did it.
People like to feel things fit their budget, not that they're fitting in budget things. That they're getting stuff for less, not that they're getting less stuff.
It might sound like nuance but nuance matters. Getting a Note 10 feels better than getting a Note 10e. And not getting an extravagant Plus feels better than not being able to get what should be normal. Apple knows this better than just about anyone. They made a big iPhone 6 and a bigger iPhone 6 Plus, not a bigger iPhone 6 and a smaller iPhone 6 Minus. But, when Apple went from the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, to the iPhone XR, iPhone XS, and iPhone XS Max, something flipped.
Intentionally or not, the iPhone XS — maybe because it came out first, maybe because S was familiar and R was new, maybe — whatever. Something flipped, and all of a sudden the more expensive iPhone XS on top became perceived as the newly expensive normal, and the less expensive iPhone XR, as something beneath it.
Instead of 'you can get an iPhone for $750 or, if you really want to, a souped-up iPhone for $1000", it became, "an iPhone costs $1000, but you can get a cheaper one for $750 if you're willing to give up some stuff". And Nuance matters.
Apple, of course, never had this problem with the Mac. They just had the MacBook or MacBook Air and, on top of it, the MacBook Pro.
Not with iPads either where they had the iPad or iPad Air, and then added on top of it, the iPad Pro.
So, now, it sounds like Apple is going to the past to fix the present and, instead of iPhone 11R, iPhone 11, and iPhone 11 Max, which would create the same negative perception, they'll have the iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, and iPhone 11 Max.
The ever-canny Jon Prosser has been saying for a while now:
The answer to declining smartphone sales is NOT innovation.
It’s compromise.The answer to declining smartphone sales is NOT innovation.
It’s compromise.— Jon Prosser (@jon_prosser) July 6, 2019July 6, 2019
What I think it needs most, though, is maturity. Not in terms of penetration, that's happened, but in terms of segmentation, which always has to follow.
A long time ago, a fellow by the name of Steve Jobs drew a grid and labeled it desktop and notebook, consumer and professional.
Things got more complicated after that, but really they didn't.
Mobile is mature now and Apple is going back to that grid. Phone and tablet, consumer and professional.
MacBook and MacBook Pro. iMac and Mac Pro. iPad and iPad Pro. iPhone and iPhone Pro.
Things are more complicated than that, but really they aren't.
According to rumors:
- The new pro iPhone 11 will have triple cameras, steel and OLED parts, and a much more proper — by which I mean restricted — set of new finishes.
- The new consumer iPhone 11 — by which I mean just the iPhone 11 — will have dual cameras, a truly obscene chipset, long battery life, and a bunch of fun colors.
And it'll cost much closer to what iPhones have always cost. What people expect them to cost.
Getting an iPhone 11 will feel better than getting an iPhone 11R. And not getting an extravagant Pro will feel better than not being able to get what should be normal.
And things might just flip back. Especially if Apple does what I've been hoping they'd do for a while now — add in a slide that shows the value prop beyond the cost.
At least for customers if not coverage.
Even if people are keeping iPhones longer, if Apple is making them last longer, if trade-ins and after-market resales mean you don't have to pay anywhere near full price…
Even if every blogger, podcaster, and YouTuber is rubbing their hands just getting ready to shout at you about the iPhone 11 not being a compelling upgrade for iPhone XS owners — despite almost no one who's not on a yearly upgrade program, almost no real person in the real world, upgrading year over year, and Apple intending the iPhone 11 for people still on the iPhone 6s or iPhone 7, for whom it would be a great upgrade and…
So, I'm basing all this on all my years of experience in the industry. It's what I think. Now, I'd love to hear what you think.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.