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Getting Disoriented About the iPhone 7

The speculation about the next iPhone is all over the place. Despite flagging sales in the last quarter and an incentive for Apple to really make a difference with the widely expected fall refresh, some online pundits are already declaring it a failure. Why? Well, for one thing, maybe it won’t be an iPhone 7 after all. Instead, Apple will simply update the iPhone 6 series, making it an iPhone 6x or something.

The real new product won’t come until 2017. Or that’s what they say.

Now I suppose it’s possible Apple will eschew the alternate-year upgrade cycle. So instead of delivering a new form factor with major improvements — and maybe more colors — Apple allegedly won’t be ready to make such compelling changes. Hence, it will just be a minor refresh. It’s not as if they’d come up with nothing.

One argument has it that Apple no longer needs new models every year, mostly because people are buying new smartphones less frequently. So if the demand isn’t there, why waste money with a major redesign? Well, except to increase demand, of course. Besides, even if the refresh isn’t so terrific, a new model number and some modest visual changes might help Apple deliver a far more compelling marketing message than just saying, sorry folks, we couldn’t do any more.

In saying that, though, it’s also true that it’s getting harder and harder to come up with distinctive features that anyone really cares about. In recent years, the updates to Samsung Galaxy smartphones haven’t been so compelling, with added fluff that may sound sexy in ads and receive great reviews from tech publications and Consumer Reports, but doesn’t do much to improve your day-to-day user experience.

Indeed, what should a smartphone do that it doesn’t already do?

The main differences between the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6s series were more powerful processors, a higher resolution camera chip, and 3D Touch. But don’t get me started about Live Photo, which lets you create short video clips, with the usefulness ratio of less than zero. I’m not so enamored of 3D Touch either, but I suppose that some of you might depend on it. Live Photo strikes me as the sort of nonsense for which Samsung is sometimes guilty, creating fluff for its marketing value as opposed to anything that’s actually useful.

All this calls for a reality check: Apple has obviously not announced any plans for an iPhone 7 or a lesser model, and won’t until September if past is prologue. There have been alleged leaks of chassis details and other design elements that may or may not be accurate. But there’s little there that indicates the form factor will be identical to its predecessors. That doesn’t mean any of it can be taken seriously, however.

But it’s true there are usually leaks from the supply chain on new Apple gear, so it’s more than likely the rumors will focus on something resembling the final design in the next few weeks. So I’m not going to assume anything is correct at this point, particularly the report that Apple is going to give up on a proper headphone jack and use the Lightning connector instead. I suppose it’s possible, and it’s true Apple has a habit of dropping old ports and sometimes introducing new ones.

However, when you consider the sheer number of ear buds, headphones, etc., in the hands of customers, and the very modest tradeoffs from this design, it doesn’t seem that Apple would go there to shave off a millimeter or two from the design. Yes, I know about the MacBook and its use of a single USB-C port. But USB-C can essentially replace the functions of the existing ports, although you’ll need a dongle for multiple devices. It still has a headphone jack.

When I look at the list of possible improvements, one suggests Apple would standardize on 32GB storage for the entry-level model. To me that makes sense for several reasons, but the biggie is the fact that the price difference between 16GB and 32GB is probably negligible for the quantities purchased by Apple. You should expect the normal performance enhancements with an expected A10 processor, better camera components and other goodies. None of this would be a game changer compared to the 2014 or 2015 models since they do so well.

I suppose it’s possible Apple has other features in mind. One would be facial recognition, and some of the new features might depend on what iOS 10 will offer. Since we’re just a couple of weeks away from the WWDC, that information will be out there before the next iPhone arrives. It might just preview potential hardware changes as well.

Unfortunately, Apple’s critics are assuming that the next iPhone is fated to be a massive disappointment. There’s no evidence of that at all, no evidence that an iPhone 7 won’t have some compelling new or enhanced features, and no evidence that it will be just a new member of the iPhone 6 family. Indeed, the latter would be a poor move for Apple, because it guarantees a bad reception and lower sales. Even if the changes are minor, Apple can give the next iPhone a proper shave and haircut, call it an iPhone 7, and tout it to the skies as the next great thing.