What All of the Leaked Photos Tell Us About Apple’s New iPhone

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Aug. 13 2012 6:13 PM

I Know What the Next iPhone Is Going To Look Like

What all of the leaked photos tell us about Apple’s latest device.

iPhone 4s.
New iPhone or old? Old of course. But the new one probably won't look much different.

The new iPhone looks pretty much like the old iPhone. Sure, it’s a bit taller, allowing for a display that has one extra row of icons on the Home screen. And instead of the glass that you find on the back of today’s iPhone, the new model’s posterior is composed mainly of some kind of metal—either stainless steel or aluminum that has been polished and, in the case of the black version, treated by a chemical process to turn it a dark, matte gray. (On the white model, the metal on the back looks untreated.) The other difference is the dock connector—instead of the inch-wide plug that Apple has placed on almost every iPod, iPhone, and iPad since 2003, the new iPhone will inaugurate a new, tiny plug that we’ll presumably find on all of Apple’s other devices, too. Finally, and strangely, the headphone jack is now on the bottom of the phone, rather than the top.

But that’s it. When CEO Tim Cook announces the next iPhone sometime next month, industrial designers and Apple obsessives are going to scrutinize all of the changes, but I bet ordinary users won’t look twice. The iPhone’s design touchstones—the Home button, the wide top and bottom bezel surrounding the screen, the just-perfect width—are all there on the new model. The volume buttons and the mute switch are also unchanged. If you were to give the new phone to folks who don’t follow the tech industry closely, your respondents would recognize the thing as an iPhone—not the “new iPhone,” not the “iPhone 5,” not the best iPhone yet, but just the iPhone.

And that, I think, explains why we know all this stuff about the new iPhone in the first place. Over the last few months, 9To5Mac.com, iLabFactory and other blogs that follow Apple obsessively have posted a string of images of parts from the new phone. Not only have we seen top, bottom, and side views of the iPhone, but we’ve also seen several pictures of its components—the motherboard, the battery, the dock connector—and even some videos, too.

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Such leaks are highly unusual. The tech press usually gets one or two pictures of unannounced Apple products, but it’s rare—other than when a prototype goes missing in a bar—to see so many photos that give up so many details of a new gadget. In an appearance at the D10 conference in May, Cook told the crowd that Apple would “double down on secrecy on products.” On Twitter, I’ve seen some speculation that the leaked pictures are part of an elaborate conspiracy to trick the tech press—that Apple may have created and planted decoy iPhone parts in the media to throw us off the real, not-at-all-boring new iPhone. All of the images have come from anonymous sources who are said to be close to Apple’s production facilities, so that’s not out of the realm of possibility.

But I find the decoy argument pretty far-fetched. That’s because the leaked pictures add up to a device that’s in keeping with Apple’s overall philosophy of constant refinement—the new iPhone will be a slight improvement on the old iPhone, just like every new iPod of the early-and-mid 2000s was a thinner, lighter, slightly better version of the last one. I don’t think Apple is leaking photos of the new iPhone, but there are enough pictures out there to make me wonder if Apple has decided not to aggressively police leaks of the new iPhone. Why would it do that? Not because it wants to throw us off—instead, I think wants us to get us used to the not-all-that-new iPhone.

Apple’s next iPhone has to be huge. It’s the company’s biggest product, and to keep Apple’s revenues growing steadily, the firm will need to sell 50 million over the holidays. The leaks, then, might be a way to tamp down the superhigh expectations that bloggers would generate in the absence of any pictures. They’re a way of getting us to understand that Apple isn’t going to kill off a great design just because we all want something novel for novelty’s sake.

And this is as it should be. In a must-read post examining the new iPhone, industrial designer Don Lehman points out that if Apple were to radically change the iPhone’s design now, it would only be doing so for aesthetic reasons, “and Apple does not design for aesthetics.” This might sound surprising to Apple haters—folks who think that Apple and its acolytes only make decisions on the basis of looks—but Lehman is right: I can’t think of a single product line where Apple made a big design change just for the sake of making a change. Instead, its most notable design leaps—when it launched the iPod Mini and then switched it with the Nano; when it created the MacBook Air; and when it launched the first iPhone and iPod Touch—were the result of Apple’s trying to build new technologies into its designs. But after those initial leaps, Apple didn’t keep making radical changes in those products, and instead switched to a more evolutionary style of design, what John Gruber calls its “slow and steady process of continuous iterative improvement.”  

A couple weeks ago, as part of documents disclosed in Apple’s patent case against Samsung, we discovered that Apple’s 2006 prototypes of the iPhone look pretty similar to the iPhone 4, which was released in 2010. In other words, even before the first iPhone was ever released, Apple had an idea of what it wanted the iPhone to eventually look like. The first iPhone—which was launched in the summer of 2007—didn’t quite get there. Neither did the second, nor the third. But by the fourth version, Apple had found the natural design for the iPhone, and unless some radical new technology comes along (flexible screens or some such), we can expect every new iPhone to be cut from the same cloth.

This is going to bother some people. “If the iPhone 5 looks like the pictures that have recently appeared, Apple may be screwed,” Business Insider’s Henry Blodget wrote in July. Blodget, echoing others, complained that the phone just didn’t look new enough—while Apple’s rivals spent the last couple years creating phones that look like “next-generation” devices, Apple’s design seems stuck in a rut.

The trouble with such arguments is that they rarely identify how Apple could improve on the iPhone’s design. Blodget’s main problem with the current iPhone is that it is “small”; Apple’s rivals have steadily been increasing the size of their phones, while Apple has refused to do so. Even if the new model is slightly taller, its overall dimensions will be far smaller than most other devices in its class.

But I think Apple has calculated, reasonably, that most people don’t want enormous phones. As I wrote in February: “A larger phone is more trouble to carry around than a small one, it’s harder to hold and use with one hand, it usually gets worse battery life, and when you put it up to your ear, you’re liable to get swept up by a strong gust.” There could well be some people who genuinely prefer larger phones, but they’ve already moved on to other devices. For the tens of millions of happy iPhone customers around the world, including me, the iPhone’s size is pretty on target.

And other than changing the size, what else could Apple have improved about the iPhone’s design? Not much. Way back in 2010, I predicted that the iPhone—and smartphones generally—had reached the limits of industrial design. As long as we’re going to interact with our phones via touchscreens, the iPhone will continue to look like a slab of glass bordered by some metal. Apple will tinker with things on the back, top, and sides of the device, but these will all be minor details.

Other than that, expect the overall look of the iPhone to be more or less set in stone for at least the next three or four years. Apple simply doesn’t make big design changes just for the sake of making something look different—it’s always looking for something better, and if it has already created something great, changing it for the sake of change won’t do anyone any good.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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