Apple’s iPhone 7 Advances

The Apple event on Wednesday dominated the tech news cycle for a day, which is par for the course. Apple announced some notable advances in terms of camera quality, GPS for the watch, and new custom chips that make both the phone and the watch run faster and last longer, which is no easy trick. They also bumped up the amount of storage in the the iPhone so that it ranges from 32GB to 256GB. There are some new cases as well, and both the phone and the watch are slimmer. And all this with no increase in price.

Still Top of the Class

The ever-cynical tech bloggers are disappointed that the iPhone 7 isn’t radically different from the 6s, but it’s unclear that it really needs to be. Of the smartphones on the market that aren’t prone to catching fire due to battery malfunctions, the iPhone 7 is at the top of the class. Apple also proudly revealed that the Apple Watch is the second highest revenue watch brand on the market after Rolex. Some commenters expect next year’s iPhone to be something really, really new; that could be exciting because I have no idea what it means. It won’t be a modular phone like Google’s recently-canceled Ara because that approach goes against Moore’s Law and consumer desires for simple, reliable products.

It could been a different approach to the screen or a different way of signalling input. Think wearable screens – smart glasses – and wireless connections between something like body sensors, a processing unit that never leaves your purse or pocket, and the glasses. That’s bound to be coming sometime in the next five years.

The blogger reaction – approaching a meltdown – to the fact that the new iPhone doesn’t have an analog phone jack is hilarious to watch. This has been coming for years, not unlike the death of the floppy disk in the personal computer and the end of the DVD player in laptops. The new iPhone and Apple Watch are both waterproof, so the headphone jack had to to keep the water out. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to include a headphone jack in a waterproof device – Samsung and others have done such devices – but that including one takes up a lot of real estate inside the case. Apple preferred to use the space for an image processing chip that raises the quality of the iPhone 7+ camera to professional grade.

Professional Grade Cameras

Om Malik, an avid photographer, highlights the new camera’s gee whiz features in his New Yorker blog:

Apple has managed to pack a lot of premium features—longer exposures, better aperture, and the ability to shoot digital negatives, which professionals call DNGs. A DNG is, essentially, a photo file that captures all the visual information possible for further manipulation, such as enhancing shadows or removing highlights. The new iPhone uses circuitry, software, and algorithms to create images that look and feel as if they came out of high-end cameras. Tellingly, Apple’s presentation of the camera’s abilities was the one aspect of the biennial iPhone rollout that wasn’t mercilessly mocked on social media.

Thus far, expensive stand-alone cameras with great lenses have been the ones able to offer what is called “bokeh,” a way to blur the background and focus on the subject in the foreground. This is especially useful when shooting portraits. It has been difficult to achieve on smartphones because of hardware limitations. Apple designed a new beefy image-processing chip for the iPhone 7 Plus, which, according to Apple’s senior vice-president of marketing, Phil Schiller, can perform “one hundred billion operations in twenty-five milliseconds”; he described it as “a supercomputer for photos.” It is sixty per cent faster than the image processor on the iPhone 6.

So this isn’t your usual smartphone camera by any stretch of the imagination and the key is the image processor. Apple can build such advanced custom chips because it’s a vertically integrated monolith, unlike the Android system, dispersing profits among so many hardware companies that none can make the deep investments in tech progress that Apple can. Malik explains:

The distinct business advantage that Apple has achieved thanks to its hardware is the sheer volume of iPhone sales, which justifies the big spending on the specialized chips that make that hardware so powerful. The new image processor is a perfect example. It can spread the cost of that investment in chips over hundreds of millions of iPhones. In comparison, the falling sales of stand-alone cameras have hampered the ability of camera companies to innovate and spend on core technologies. Given that hardware and software are equally important today, Apple’s advances in both areas makes it difficult for anyone to beat the company in photography for the masses. You can see why the camera companies are doomed.

iPhone Assimilates Rival Devices

I have to wonder whether it’s only the camera companies that need to be worried. Smart watches with body sensors and health and fitness capabilities used to be specialty items. You bought triathlon trainers from Garmin that kept track of your heart rate and pace while running, swimming, or biking and gave you feedback on the effort you were expending. Such watches are highly capable, but you wouldn’t want to wear one all the time because they’re too bulky.

But the new Apple Watch brings most of that capability into an unobtrusive device that you never need to take off except for its nightly recharge. Because of the volume, Apple can miniaturize the internal components and include all the sensors in the athlete watches. And because the Apple Watch has an open-ish app store, software companies can do great things with it. So moving the professional features from yesterday’s tech into today’s mainstream tech, the tech gets better faster and more people have access to it. This is the Varian Rule, the idea that the poor will get things in the future that the rich have today, albeit not necessarily in the same package.

Headphone Port Meltdown

The over-reaction to the loss of the headphone port seems like sour grapes. The Internet’s resident hysteric, Nilay Patel, pre-melted on the rumor instead of waiting for the announcement about the demise of the headphone port:

Another day, another rumor that Apple is going to ditch the headphone jack on the next iPhone in favor of sending out audio over Lightning. Or another phone beats Apple to the punch by ditching the headphone jack in favor of passing out audio over USB-C. What exciting times for phones! We’re so out of ideas that actively making them shittier and more user-hostile is the only innovation left.

Look, I know you’re going to tell me that the traditional TRS headphone jack is a billion years old and prone to failure and that life is about progress and whatever else you need to repeat deliriously into your bed of old HTC extUSB dongles and insane magnetic Palm adapters to sleep at night. But just face facts: ditching the headphone jack on phones makes them worse, in extremely obvious ways. Let’s count them!

He’s mainly incensed about copy-protection for music. For the record, Patel is the guy who confidently told us two and half years ago that Tom Wheeler was out to kill net neutrality in the classic viral post “The Internet is Fucked (but we can fix it)“. I’ve never used wired headphones a lot on any of my smartphones so it doesn’t strike me as a big deal. My wish is for better Bluetooth headphones, and that would seem to be in the cards now that the analog crutch is going away. So color me happy.

Wireless Tweaks

There are two wireless tech features that stand out: Apple routes the cellular antenna through the iPhone 7 case, which is going to be good for reception. The iPhone 7 is designed to use a wide swath of frequencies around the world:

FDD-LTE (Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30)
TD-LTE (Bands 38, 39, 40, 41)
TD-SCDMA 1900 (F), 2000 (A)
CDMA EV-DO Rev. A  (800, 1900, 2100 MHz)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz)
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
TD-LTE (Bands 38, 39, 40, 41)
UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1700/2100, 1900, 2100 MHz)
GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz)
802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO
Bluetooth 4.2 wireless technology
And it has Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and Wi-Fi calling, so you won’t be stuck with 2G fallback for voice. The iPhone 7 and the wireless Air Pods use a tweaked version of Bluetooth 4.2 that connects easier, uses less power, and offers better audio quality. I suspect this improved wireless headset method is part of the reason Apple felt comfortable with ditching the jack. The Internet is calling them “airbuds” and I expect that name to fit because who doesn’t like a good dog movie.
All of that is nice, but I’m looking forward to iOS 10 more than to the new hardware. We’ll be seeing that in a couple of weeks.