The Future of the iPhone

This article is not about leaks. Nor is it about concepts, renders or even speculation. Instead, let us examine emerging technologies that Apple is already invested in and are in the pipeline. Lets discuss what this could plausibly mean for the iPhone in the future.

Edge Computing

We’ve all heard of cloud computing but you might not have heard of edge computing. Cloud computing in simple terms is the concept of storing and offloading the processing of data via a centralised location called a Data Centre. Many of Apple’s services are powered by iCloud and these operate via region specific Data Centres. Every time you send an iMessage, download an App, make an iCloud backup or even make a FaceTime call, it gets transmitted, stored or processed by the nearest Data Centre to your current location. The problem with cloud computing however is that as the number of users connected to a Data Centre increases, the latency and reliability of the system starts to break down. Edge computing solves that problem.

Think of edge computing as being far more local. Far more de-centralised. It’s like having a mini data centre operating much more proximal to your location. And that’s because that is exactly what it is. And by taking a more local approach to the concept of cloud computing, it enables far lower latency and more efficient use of bandwidth. Now you might be thinking…ok sure…but what does that have to do with the future of the iPhone? And it turns out quite a lot.

Apple is known for creating devices, software and services that are delightful, magical even. But a big part of that magic happens behind the scenes, behind the magicians curtain so to speak. So many of the features we take for granted from our iPhones are powered by data centres that without them, the iPhone couldn’t exist as it does today. Here’s an image that perhaps best illustrates this:

Take from Apple’s system status page.

If Apple chooses to take a more local approach to cloud computing by implementing an edge system, it’ll ensure a seamless, latency free experience for everyone for years to come. And it’ll mean as the iPhone becomes more and more capable with new features and services, the operations behind the scenes are ready and up for the task. Beyond that though as our homes get smarter and more automated, the iPhone as a crucial part of that ecosystem will be able to more quickly and efficiently interact with internet of things ‘IOT’ devices in an even more secure and convenient way. And with rumours that Apple plans to make serious moves into Augmented Realty, it’s likely that the iPhone will be used for offloading processor intensive tasks. A quick seamless connection to networks and data centres will greatly aid in achieving this.

3D Integrated Circuits

A 3D integrated circuit is a process by which multiple silicon wafers or dies and stacked and interconnected vertically. This enables them to act as a singular processor while taking up much less space and drawing far less energy. The benefits of doing this are huge. Here are just a few examples:

  • More functionality will sit within a smaller footprint. It extends the rule of Moore’s law of computing by essentially doubling processing power in an area the same size as a single chip.
  • By separating out a larger chip across multiple dies and stacking them, the yield rate goes up and fabrication cost goes down. Meaning devices get cheaper.
  • It can reduce the power consumption of a device by 10-100 times, reduces the power budget of devices and leads to less generation of heat. This can even extend battery health by exposing the battery chemistry to less thermal fluctuation.
  • The space savings gained by 3D integrated circuitry have the potential to enable new form factors and entirely new categories of devices. In the case of the iPhone that space-saving could be used to add new functionalities or increase the size of the battery.

Privacy-enhancing computation

Apple is obsessed with privacy and protecting user data. That much we already know. And the iPhone along with all other Apple products have various advanced technologies built in to enhance privacy. Privacy-enhancing computation builds on this with three pieces of technology:

1. It creates a trusted processing environment that facilitates the analysis of data in a secure and private way

2. It performs processing and analytics in a totally decentralised manner

3. Finally data and algorithms are encrypted before any analysis, modification or processing ever takes place

Apple already takes advantage of this to some extent. Every iPhone since the iPhone 5S for example has had a Secure Enclave for storing biometric data. And every iPhone since the iPhone 6 has had a secure element for housing payment information for Apple Pay. But true privacy-enhancing computing will go beyond this with a separate co-processor just for highly sensitive data. Health data, for instance, iMessages, banking apps etc could all take advantage of the highly secure environment afforded by a privacy-enhancing co-processor.

Looking Ahead

The emerging techngologies dsecribed in this article give us a sense of the direction that Apple may go in the future with the iPhone (and probably some of its other products too!). But where do you see the future of the iPhone? Is it foldable? rollable? Or does it instead retain the current form factor but focus on relentlessly refining and enhancing current capabilities while carefully adding new features? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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