Apple unveiled its newest iPhone model Wednesday. The iPhone is a technological marvel, a luxury product, and a cultural icon, and it has been basically since it was invented in 2007. Eight years later, the iPhone can tell us a lot about how technologies are developed and sold.
New iPhone models come out every two years; in the in-between years, Apple releases S versions of those new models. This is an in-between year, so the changes to the phone are pretty minor. Still, it's informative to look at the different updates to the iPhone 6 that are manifested in Wednesday's release of the iPhone 6S (and iPhone 6S Plus) — a new layer of manual interaction with the screen, an improved front-facing camera, better video quality, faster download speeds, etc. — and think about how and why those decisions were made.
The most noble, most true, and most tantalizing kind of technological advancement is creating something that didn't exist before at all. These types of advancements can be total flops, or they can change how society functions forever. These are the kinds of technologies that companies want to be known for.
Before Wednesday, there were three ways you could interact with an iPhone. You could use voice commands, you could tap, and you could swipe. (Four ways, if you count throwing it across the room because you can't take a photo because the memory is still full and you have no more apps to delete.)
But now, there's a new way to use your fingers to communicate with an iPhone. The screen of the new iPhone is being made with a new material, one that can basically differentiate between a light tap, a firm press, and a hard jab. Previously, on other devices, Apple has called this feature Force Touch, but because the functionality is so much greater on the iPhone, the company decided to rename it 3D Touch.
3D Touch is kind of like right-clicking on a mouse, or double-tapping on a MacBook keyboard; it opens up secondary interactions with a digital element. 3D Touch adds to the iPhone's existing Multitouch gesture options (swipe, pinch, tap) with the introduction of new interactions peek and pop. 3D Touch is made possible by Apple's Taptic Engine, an advancement in haptic technology that Apple actually patented a few years ago.
3D Touch will also allow new iPhone owners to view Live Photos, another new feature announced. With Live Photos, users can see what was happening when a photo was taken simply by pressing firmly on a still phone. The new phone camera captures action 1.5 seconds before and after an image is snapped. "You don't do anything different — you just take a photo as you alway have," Apple's senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi told the audience assembled at the launch event this morning.
3D Touch takes the existing iPhone — already a multifaceted and highly dynamic technology — and basically adds a whole new layer of interaction. Whatever this means today — for example, reducing the number of taps it takes to get to turn-by-turn directions in Maps — will mean exponentially more as app developers adopt the new technology. For example, on Tinder, would-be dates tap to learn more, swipe left to say no, and swipe right to say yes. But what could 3D Touch on Tinder do? The answer is, we don't know yet. Someone has to invent it still. That's what makes a new technology exciting.
A lot of what we call new technology, though, isn't really new, but a resourcefulness and inventiveness that involves using existing products and technologies in new ways. People who want to invent things (or start companies, which is like inventing something but for capitalists) are often told to think of a problem, then solve it. According to this thinking, new technologies are actually just solutions; products advance when user frustrations are removed. Some people are bothered by this technological solutionism, because it implies that every problem can be solved with a nifty trick, rather than by people altering their behavior. But sometimes, especially when it comes to making incremental changes to a consumer product (like the iPhone), it can work.
For example: Anyone who's ever woken up after a night of carousing in bars to a camera roll of dark, indistinguishable selfies knows that extant iPhones have a problem — there is no front-facing flash. Until now, if you are somewhere in the dark and you want to capture a photo to show your friends how you're feeling — say, scared of the dark — that has been very difficult to do.
The author at da club.
The "new" iPhone offers a solution to that problem, but not the way you'd think. Instead of finding a way to attach a flash to both sides of the phone, Apple ported a workaround they've been using on Photo Booth for a long time. On the new iPhone, when you take a selfie, the phone's LED screen will flash a white screen three times brighter than normal seconds before the picture is taken, projecting light onto your smiling visage and illuminating your photo. Called Retina Flash, this is not a new technology, but it is a new solution to a tech problem. With the new "flash," Apple managed to improve their product without actually inventing anything new.
(The company is also, for what it's worth, upping the megapixel count on the front-facing camera from 1.2 to 5. It's tempting to describe these updates, in addition to the "flash," as innovations that will lead to "better selfies." It should be noted that it is more accurate to say that these features will lead to better-lit, possibly larger selfies, which may not, unfortunately, increase the allure of your physical appearance and may quite possibly make it even worse.)
There are lots of different ways to think about how tech advances happen — problems are solved, inventions are born, industries are disrupted. But those are all about intentional decisions that people make. A lot of what we consider technological process is actually just a series of minor, incremental improvements that happen over time. Cars are faster. Buildings are taller. Time marches on. It's progress.
Every time Apple releases a new model of an iPhone, we see this kind of advancement. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have 8-megapixel cameras. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will have a 12-megapixel camera. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus shoot video in 1080p. The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus will shoot video in 4K. Thanks to the new iPhone 6S's new A9 processor chip, browsing speed is faster, battery life is longer, and memory bigger than before.
(What's 4K? It's really high-res video that very few people will have room for on their phones and even fewer people will be able to play on big screens. So, in all likelihood, don't worry about it. Unless you're sticking with a 16MB iPhone, in which case definitely worry, because you're going to run out of space.)
There are a lot of people — designers, developers, engineers — who have more or less dedicated their careers to making this kind of progress happen. These people, ideally, enjoy this race toward an ever more efficient and productive future, and we owe them a lot — like, thousands of baby pictures and late-night phone calls and last-minute directions. These are the people who work on the kind of technological advancement that we just sort of expect to happen.
There are also things about the new iPhone that have nothing to do, really, with technological advancement. For example, you can get this one in a rose gold color. There have been gold iPhones before, and there have been pink iPhones before, but never rose gold. If you dig rose gold (which is really more of a copper, tbh), this could be exciting for you. There's also something new about the way the wallpaper display works — it shimmers, or is animated, in a way that it wasn't before. It seems to be ideal for if you have a lot of pictures of glow-in-the-dark fish.
These things, though, aren't so much new technologies as they are new packaging wrapped around a combination of new and preexisting technologies. They help pull the entirely new 3D Touch and the front-facing "flash" solution and the incrementally better battery life and more video-y video together into something more cohesive, something that is demarcated clearly as an iPhone 6S, rather than, say, an iPhone 5S or simply an iPhone 6.
In this hyped-up technological age, we take it for granted that our phones and our computers and our smartwatches will just keep getting better all the time. What the features and extras do is take the continuously evolving thing — in the case the iPhone — and turn it into a product, into something new.
The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus cost the same as the iPhone 6 models did, starting at $199 and $299 respectively. For the first time, however, Apple is offering a payment plan in retail stores; for $32 a month, you can get a new phone every year. Customers can preorder starting this weekend. The phones will ship Sept. 25.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O’Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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