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Signals from the future at Apple’s event

What wires and cables remain when it comes to the iPhone — and could these similarly be eliminated?

Apple Chief Design Officer Jonathan Ive points out a new Apple Watch to actor Stephen Fry during a launch event on September 7, 2016 in San Francisco, Calif.
Stephen Lam / Getty

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Along with the rest of the core Tech.pinions team, I attended Apple’s event in San Francisco on Wednesday; I wanted to focus on what the announcements suggest about future Apple products. As I’ve written before, Apple tends to build up to big changes in an incremental fashion. There were clues to this future throughout Wednesday’s announcements.

From a taptic home button to no home button

The iPhone 7 does away with the headphone jack, something many of us would have considered indispensable until recently, but I suspect the apparently equally indispensable home button might be next to go. Why? Well, another big hardware change Apple made this time around was replacing the old home button with a new one that uses the Taptic Engine for feedback rather than actually being depressed. This is analogous to the changes Apple has made recently to its trackpads, which now only appear to “give” in response to clicks — the Taptic technology gives the impression of movement with a small click-like vibration.

By making the same change to the home button on the iPhone, Apple could potentially move the home button functionality into the screen in a future iPhone because people will get used to the sensation of pressing an immovable object with only the impression of movement in response. Removing the separate home button would allow Apple to reduce the size of the bottom bezel or eliminate it entirely, something it could do as soon as next year’s iPhone model, which has been rumored to get a big design change.

From wireless audio to wireless charging

One of the biggest announcements at the event was the new AirPods, and the justification for these new audio devices was centered on a vision Apple has for a wireless future. Phil Schiller said, “It makes no sense to tether ourselves with cables to our mobile devices,” while Jony Ive said in the AirPod intro video, “We believe in a wireless future.”

All of this raises an obvious question: What wires and cables remain when it comes to the iPhone, and could these similarly be eliminated? The equally obvious answer is that charging is the one area where iPhones still require cables. Tethering devices to the wall or to other devices prevents them from being truly mobile. Wireless charging is already widespread in competing devices, and the Apple Watch makes use of a plug-less charging technology. While wireless charging over distance continues to be the most intriguing long-term possibility in my mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple introduced a contact-based wireless charging technology for iPhones in the next couple of years.

From water-resistant watches to water-resistant iPhones

Apple made a pair of water-resistance announcements today, improving the ratings for both the iPhone and the Apple Watch in the process. The Apple Watch is now certified water-resistant up to 50 meters, while the iPhone receives an IP67 rating. It’s now rated for immersion in shallow depths of water, as well as being dust-resistant. There is arguably a steady progression here in both devices — the original Watch was already water-resistant, as demonstrated by a number of third-party tests and my own repeated showers and swims while wearing my Watch. The iPhone has progressively become more resistant to casual exposure to water.

All this raises the question of whether the iPhone, too, will become progressively water-resistant and eventually secure a more extensive water-resistance rating. Clearly, most of us aren’t going to take our iPhones swimming (or try to write notes underwater, a la Samsung), but a more extensive water-resistance might be useful for certain applications, and would provide greater peace of mind when on vacation at the beach, for example.

From a W1 chip for audio to other applications

The W1 chip was a major focus of the section of Apple’s keynote dealing with its new AirPods for wireless audio. The W1 is the latest in a long line of Apple-designed chips, including the A-series, that are central to the iPhone and iPad, the M-series motion coprocessors, and others. This chip, though, has a very specific focus: Providing Bluetooth-like functionality with greater power efficiency and reliability. For now at least, it’s being deployed solely in audio devices like headphones and earbuds, but I wonder what other Apple devices might in time benefit from using either the W1 or some of the other underlying technologies. The Apple Watch already pairs with the iPhone over Bluetooth; might some of the technology developed for the W1 or something related to it eventually allow the Watch to pair more power-efficiently with phones? Might Apple develop other accessory devices to pair with either the iPhone or the Apple Watch using similar technology?

From FeliCa in Japan to more regional variations

One announcement of minor importance outside of Japan but of great significance in that country was the addition of FeliCa support to the iPhone and Apple Watch, for compatibility with the Japanese transit system. FeliCa itself has no real relevance outside of Japan, but this kind of regional customization of Apple’s hardware is indicative of the kind of incremental feature advances Apple is likely to have to continue to make in order to increase its market share going forward. We’ve already seen significant investment in transit mapping in China, for example, well before similar efforts in other countries, while support for additional languages and similar efforts are under way in other markets, including India. I suspect we’ll see lots more of this as Apple attempts to make inroads and continues to break down barriers in additional regions.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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