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Apple’s iPhone 8 expected to introduce features already seen as long-in-the-tooth

Apple’s upcoming iPhone, due to launch on the product line’s 10th anniversary, is expected to introduce new features including higher-resolution displays, wireless charging and 3D sensors.

However, rather than representing major breakthroughs, most of the innovations have been available in competing phones for several years.

Apple’s relatively slow adoption of new features both reflects and reinforces the fact smartphone customers are holding onto their phones longer.

Timothy Arcuri, an analyst at Cowen & Co, believes upwards of 40 per cent of iPhones on the market are more than two years old, a historic high.

That is a big reason why investors have driven Apple shares to an all-time high. There is pent-up demand for a new iPhone, even if it does not offer breakthrough technologies.

It is not clear whether Apple deliberately held off from packing some of the features into the current iPhone 7, which has been criticised for a lack of differentiation from its predecessor. Apple declined to comment on the upcoming product.

Still, the development and rollout of the anniversary iPhone suggest Apple’s product strategy is driven less by technological innovation than by consumer upgrade cycles and Apple’s own business and marketing needs.

“When a market gets saturated, the growth is all about refresh,” said Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research. “This is exactly what happened to PCs. It’s exactly what happened to tablets. It’s starting to happen to smartphones.”

Apple is close-mouthed about upcoming product features, but analysts and reports from Asian component suppliers and others indicate that high-resolution displays based on OLED technology—possibly with curved edges—are likely to be part of the anniversary phone. A radical new design is not expected, according to analysts.

Some of the anticipated new technologies, notably wireless charging, remain messy. Samsung phones, for example, feature wireless charging but support two different sets of standards, one called Qi and the other AirFuel.

Apple recently joined the group backing Qi. But there are still at least five different groups working on wireless charging technology within Apple, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. 

As to 3D sensors, there is already one hiding in the iPhone 7. The front camera features what is known as a time-of-flight sensor, which helps it autofocus and is used in numerous phones including the Blackberry, according to TechInsights, a firm that examines the chips inside tech devices.

That sensor could be upgraded to a higher-resolution version that could handle 3D mapping for facial recognition, said Jim Morrison, vice-president at TechInsights.

Some analysts also speculate the company could remove the phone’s home button, placing it and a fingerprint sensor beneath the front display glass, based on patents the company has filed.

Global smartphone sales were up only 2.3 per cent to 1.47 billion units in 2016, according to IDC. Many carriers in the United States have stopped subsidising phones, causing phone buyers to think harder about their next purchase.

Apple will likely make a heavy marketing push around the phone’s 10th anniversary. “IPhone set the standard for mobile computing in its first decade and we are just getting started. The best is yet to come,” chief executive officer Tim Cook said last month.

In 2015, the last year it disclosed the figure, Apple spent $1.8bn (£1.4bn) on advertising, up 50 per cent from the year before and nearly four times the $467m it spent in 2007 when it first released the iPhone.

While the current iPhone 7 Plus tops out at £919 with memory upgrades and a jet black finish. O’Donnell of Technalysis Research believes that with the next iPhone, Apple might even introduce a $1,000-plus “ultra-premium device for the real Apple-crazed folks out there who want to stand out.”

E&T recently looked at the technology powering Apple’s new wireless Bluetooth headphones, the AirPods. 

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