WWDC 2012 is coming next week, and along with it a fresh wave of rumours and speculation about the next iPhone is building up.
WWDC is Apple's annual developer conference – a sell-out event for ~5,000 developers of Mac and iOS software who get a chance to hear about platform developments, speak to the people who put the software and APIs together, and Apple's big opportunity to share a lot of information in a short space of time.
A new iPhone launch generally means two things; a new iPhone handset, and an update to the iOS operating system. This means that iPhone and iPad users are hoping to hear about new features that will be coming to their older devices.
But the iOS platform isn't just about the operating system; it covers a whole ecosystem of 3rd party applications. If Apple want to make significant changes that will improve what developers can do, they need to inform the developers so that they can be preparing their applications for the release of the latest version. So there is an expectation that WWDC will bring significant news about Apple's plans for the future of their platforms. And assuming that the new iPhone will come along with iOS6 later this year (I'd expect September, like last year), WWDC is a well-timed opportunity to prepare developers for the changes ahead.
(There is also the matter of a new OSX version coming up – probably with some new features that we don't yet know about.)
With a whole bunch of sessions listed on the schedule as simply "TBA", there is a particularly high expectation that something significant is brewing. While that might be simply Apple running late in organising who will talk where or late changes to the schedule, it seems likely that there are major platform changes afoot – possibly even a whole new platform for developers to use.
But, until WWDC, that is about as much as we really know right now. Which makes it an interesting time for speculation…
How the iPhone market has changed
Last September, after the iPhone 4S was announced, I wrote a piece for my work's blog about the implications for Apple's broader strategy. In short;
- The availability of the 3Gs model for 'free' opened the target market up completely – Apple are now aiming beyond the smartphone market, and at the entire mobile handset market.
- With the launch of iCloud and Siri, Apple's iPhone product is now just as much about Apple's online services as it is the handset.
- Along with the growing market, expectation for the 'iPhone 5' had exceeded those for all previous iPhone launches.
Taking some charts that Mat Morrison put together and updating them, we see that anticipation for the iPhone 5 hasn't completely died down. In fact, it appears to have been rising slightly since the start of the year;
(click for full size) (source)
This is a little odd – the iPhone 4 was the only model that used its generation number as its name (the original iPhone was simply 'iPhone', the second was the iPhone 3G, and the third was the iPhone 3GS.) It would make more sense to expect the next model to be the iPhone 6 than the iPhone 5.
Using Google search trends for 'iPhone' as a proxy measure for level of interest, and putting that alongside global iPhone sales trends shows an interesting picture; the 'steps' in search volumes coincide with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. Although search volumes showed a significant spike around the time of the iPhone launch, they quickly settled back to similar levels to before the launch. Sales figures, however, tell a different story.
(Source: Google Insights for Search, Apple financial statements)
My interpretation of this is that it is a result of the change in the smartphone market – it is no longer dominated by the kind of shoppers who are closely following online news to find out about the best way to get the latest and greatest model (and avoid committing to a contract with the old phone as its just about to be replaced by a newer model), but simply people who are looking for a new handset (perhaps because their contract commitment is at an end), decide to buy a smartphone, and choose the iPhone. Although there was a dip as the expected June/July launch came and went (and some held off upgrading as they waited for the new model), they were far exceeded by the additional sales that the iPhone 4S generated.
Personally, I would expect a different naming system – if I had to bet, I would say that the 3rd iPad being referred to as 'the new iPad' would be the kind of thing to expect, with the next model being simply 'the new iPhone.' After all, most people really don't care which version they have (a lot of people I talk to don't even know) – what they will ask for is just 'the new iPhone.' So why not give them what they want?
The Tall iPhone Screen and 'Flexible Apps'
Rumours seem to have gradually turned into consensus that the new iPhone will have a taller screen (an extra 176 pixels in height – effectively an additional row of icons on the home screen, changing it from a 4:3 to 16:9 aspect ratio.)
Now, Apple might want to tell developers about the new screen height for the next iPhone. Or, they might want to just tell developers how to design their applications to work well across different screen sizes. There is a subtle difference between the two.
Right now, iOS developers need to deal with 4 screen resolutions at the moment; iPhone Portrait, iPhone Landscape, iPad Portrait and iPad Landscape. They also need to consider older (pre-iPhone 4/iPad 3) versions of devices that don't have a retina display. They can ignore either device, or restrict their application to either portrait or landscape views.
When the iPad launched, it had the ability to run iPhone apps at either 'normal' size (ie. stupidly small in the middle of the screen) or 'x2' size (scaled up to fill most of the screen.) This was pretty clearly done with the idea that it would take time for iPhone app developers to port their apps for the iPhone. Two years (and something like 80 million iPads sold) later, this seems to me like an unnecessary compromise – a function whose time has passed. While there are 'universal' apps (that is, an iPhone and iPad application wrapped up into a single downloadable bundle), they are effectively two separate applications.
So, just suppose that Apple got rid of this and replaced it with something better – a true 'universal' app framework that scaled effectively for iPhone and iPad screens. Lets call it a 'flexible app' for the moment.
The problem is that a well-designed iPad app is different to just a scaled-up iPhone app. For example, iPads have 'popovers' and split views that are only available on the iPad. Clearly, these would not be of much use on an iPhone – at least in portrait orientation. But perhaps these would be useful on the iPhone in landscape orientation?
The reason I think this gets interesting is that, assuming that a developer was following Apple's guidelines and making the most of the excellent accessibility features that the iOS framework provides, you wouldn't need to be using a touch screen to operate a well-designed 'flexible' app. In other words, it would be fairly simple to make an iOS application work on a non-touchscreen device – like an Apple TV. (I would strongly recommend trying out switching on the accessibility features like VoiceOver on the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch if you want an idea of how they might work out. Apart from anything else, it can be useful to know that your phone can read web pages out loud to you.)
(Also worth noting – at WWDC 2012, Apple's Design Awards have been shifted to a highly prominent spot on Monday. My prediction is that applications which work well not just across platforms but across orientations will get a lot of attention here. Remember, 'design' isn't about what something looks like – its how it works.)
So… Right now, a well-designed iPhone application needs to have a certain amount of flexibility in screen height. There is a status bar of 20pt 1 at the top of the screen; developers are encouraged to leave this there, unless there is a good reason to get rid of it. (eg. for full screen games, or full screen video apps.)
Apps also need to be able to deal with a double-height (40pt) status bar - if the phone is on a call, an application is recording audio, or a hotspot is connected, then an additional status bar informing the user (and enabling them to jump back to the relevant application with a tap) will appear. So a well-designed application needs to be able to deal with 'losing' an additional 20pts of screen space.
(Its worth noting that this is effectively 2 status bars, separately 'tappable', and both 20pts high. You might know that Apple consider the minimum 'comfortable' size of tappable UI elements as 44x44pts. It feels like this is an area with room for improvement.)
Now, what would it be like if apps could deal with a status bar (so you can see how much battery you have, whether you have a cellular signal, whether anything is downloading, and whether your location is being used), an additional alert bar telling you about a phone call or hotspot, and an alert bar telling you about a recent email or application update all at once? Maybe even more than one alert bar would be better than a series of distractions?
To me, that sounds like a better framework for developers than keeping the iPhone's screen dimensions – which, lets remember, were decided upon at a time when the iPhone had no 3rd party apps, let alone multitasking and alerts coming from dozens of different applications – frozen at 320x480pts forever. If developers properly handle that flexibility, they they are already prepared for a different screen resolution.
Google and Maps
An updated Maps application that breaks away from Google Maps has been strongly rumoured for a little while. For anyone tracking the smartphone industry, it certainly makes sense that Apple would want to break with Google – for one thing, there is obviously some bad blood between the companies. For another, Android has had better functionality in their Google Maps implementation for some time. (turn-by-turn navigation and offline access being two particularly useful functions.) As an owner of an iPhone and an Android phone, this is an important area of functionality that the Android phone beats the iPhone in hands-down. I can only assume that the lack of progress on the iPhone front is for one of two reasons; either Google have been slow to develop the iPhone version (because their focus is on Android), or Apple have been slow to develop the application (because their focus has been on building their own Maps app and API behind the scenes.)
My guess is that this is more about the broader strategy though – location-based data is going to be come increasingly valuable for advertisers (and remember, Google get a huge majority of their revenue comes from advertising.) But if Apple can not just remain in the driving seat for iPhone users, but take a step in to 'real' control of the ecosystem.
What might this mean?
- A demonstrably better Maps application than Android phones?
- Exclusive use of location data for iAds?
Ultimately, Apple and Google are in fierce competition around the mobile world – but its an asymmetrical kind of competition, in that Google still make money out of iPhone users. (Perhaps even more than they make from Android.) Google's mobile business isn't in selling Android phones, but in selling mobile adverts. And iPhone users see just as many adverts (actually more in many places) as Android users. But while iPhone users are seeing Google ads, Android users aren't buying iPhones.
The flip side is that Apple don't seem terribly interested in making money out of iAds – rather, they want developers to make money out of free applications (which help them to sell iPhones.)
Location-based data is a massive source of value for mobile advertisers, and taking control of that (and away from Google) could be a part of a broader strategy to improve Apple's iAds and grow the Apple ecosystem's share of that market.
Integration with Facebook is looking increasingly likely. But what will this mean? Well, the Twitter integration seems like a reasonable model – functionality baked in at an OS level that makes it easy to share content (links, photos etc) with Facebook.
Personally, I think the 'share' menu on the iPhone is getting far too cluttered. Currently, in Safari on the iPhone, I get the option to add a link as a bookmark, to the 'Reading List' or to the home screen, mail a link, tweet it, or print it. On Facebook, I could share it (post as a status update), 'like' it, or send it as a private message to people/groups etc. Adding this sort of stuff at an OS level seems like an easy win.
Ping launched in September 2010, with rumours that it had originally been planned to feature Facebook integration. The next year, Facebook announced some significant changes to their API, which meant that Facebook apps were no longer limited to 'likes' – users could use any verb within the Facebook platform – 'read' articles, 'listen to' music, 'watch' videos etc. etc. I'm surprised that Ping hasn't already included a Facebook element, allowing people to 'frictionlessly share' with Facebook when they 'listen to', 'buy' or 'like' music. My guess is that Apple either wants to make sure that their implementation of Facebook's API is rock solid, or that they have something a bit different – and perhaps less obvious – in mind.
That line of thinking takes me to a more interesting thought. Integration with iCloud could solve an obvious problem – alerts that appear on my iPad to tell me about something don't go away when I've read whatever it is alerting me to on another platform (for me, that means either iPhone or the web.) Integration with iCloud could solve this problem pretty easily. But this seems like it could open up some other possible connections. For example, 'Game Center' on its own is pretty useful – but I'm not going to send out 'friend requests' to everyone who I already know on the off chance that a) they have an iPhone, b) they play games, and c) they are playing the same games as me. But automatically connect me to my Facebook friends and the feature suddenly becomes a lot more useful.
As I've said for some time, I think the way to understand Apple TV is to think of it as an iOS accessory. I also think that there is plenty of space for the Apple TV platform to grow before there is a real need for new hardware (like an Apple TV that is an actual TV.) Given that the job of a TV (at a time when other devices are getting 'smarter') is increasingly a dumb screen that just displays whats fed to it by another device, I don't really see the value in an Apple TV screen. (Even ignoring the economics and tight profit margins of the TV business.) The existing Apple TV does what needs to be done to provide an Apple 'experience' on the TV set.
Firstly, to understand what 'Apple TV as an iOS accessory' means, you need to understand what AirPlay means. Not everyone understands that. Not even every iPhone owner understands that. (There are even important people in the TV industry who don't seem to understand that.)
Putting the Remote application as standard on all iPhones would be a good way of raising awareness that this is possible. (I would guess that there are more people who choose to download and use the Remote app would be greater than the number who use the Stocks app - also installed as standard.) Letting users fire it up straight from the lock screen would be another – similar to the way the camera can be launched straight from the home screen. (Maybe AirPlay could replace the Camera icon when its connected?)
Apparently the latest generation of Apple TV includes the hardware for a Bluetooth 4.0 connection – which isn't currently being used. The latest iPad and iPhone models also include Bluetooth 4.0, as do the latest MacBooks. But it isn't something that is really being used yet, which suggests that Apple has a broader plan for this technology. A persistent network connection between devices, without using battery-draining WiFi or relying on a WiFi hub seems like a suitable use of this technology.
That said, I would personally like to see some changes to the Apple TV device. I'd like to be able to send my cable TV through the Apple TV, and give that the job of switching between inputs. Maybe even have an Apple overlay, giving me apps as on-screen widgets while I'm watching 'dumb' TV content on my 'dumb' screen. I doubt that it would happen – but it would make the device more useful, making it easier to flick content from iOS to my TV screen. I'd like to be able to use my iPhone/iPad as a remote control for the other devices that are hooked up to my TV set - not just the Apple TV itself. (Devices like Slingbox let you do this kind of 'remote remote control', by connecting a tiny IR light to the remote control sensors on the devices.) I'd be surprised to see it happen – but it feels like something that would be both more useful and more cost effective than an expensive Apple screen.
(And even if Apple don't do something like this, then I expect that Google and their new TV set top box department within Motorola Mobility are looking at the possibilities of doing something similar with Google TV/Android.)
So, not so much a set of predictions as some more idle speculation (not the first time). Whatever happens next week, I'm pretty sure that it will be an interesting time ahead for Apple developers.
1pt = 1px on pre-retina displays, or 2px on retina displays. ↩