Apple’s massively hyped mobile device launch event yesterday in Cupertino, California answered many of the questions we posed last week about their product and technology roadmap.
Spoiler Alert: in last week’s article, we speculated about the manufacturing role that GT Advanced Technology would play — given what we already knew about Apple’s “Project Cascade.” The answer is sapphire covers will be used for the new Apple Watch, which is expected to be available in early 2015 and not for the iPhone 6, at least not at first. The timing makes sense given that the GT Advanced Technology factory in Mesa, Arizona is just now ramping up for large-scale sapphire production.
Apple Addresses the “Phablet” Form Factor Gap in Its Product Line
Prior to yesterday’s announcement, many press analysts had chastised Apple for missing an opportunity to deliver larger form factor devices that sit somewhere between an iPhone and iPad, e.g. the so-called “Phablet” market. There is evidence that Samsung’s Galaxy was indeed making inroads thanks to its larger screen size. Internal Apple documents disclosed during one of many legal battles between Samsung and Apple over patented technology revealed confidential Apple discussions where executives lamented that their lack of a larger form factor product was indeed impeding iPhone sales.
As expected, Apple has addressed this issue head-on. Apple revealed the final product names (iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus), the exact screen dimensions (4.7 and 5.5 in respectively) — all wrapped in a thin, elegant design that builds on the design language of the most recent iPad. It’s also strongly reminiscent of designs by the famous industrial designer Dieter Rams, who was Chief Design Officer at Braun from 1961 to 1995.
Worth noting: the glass cover on the new design is higher (or “proud” as a product designer or machinist would say) than the surrounding exterior bezel case. Indeed, the edge of the glass is chamfered with a round radius that blends seamlessly into the bezel — very elegant! But this design also makes us speculate that once the cost of large sapphire screens drops and the availability increases Apple may introduce a version of the iPhone with a tough, durable sapphire screen, perhaps as early as next year.
Apple Controls the Hardware Design, the Operating System Design and the User Experience. But They Outsource Manufacturing.
Facing competition from industry giants Google and Samsung, Apple continues its unique strategy within the industry of developing an entire end-to-end eco-system for its product line, from hardware design, operating systems, application programming interfaces (API) and software development kits (SDK) to industrial design (ID) as well as user interface and user experience (UX). We can’t help but be reminded of the epic battles in the PC era between Apple and Microsoft. Microsoft dominated the PC industry, but as emphasis has shifted toward smaller mobile devices, consumers have shown a strong preference for elegant, fully integrated designs. And Apple’s integrated approach has given them the upper hand.
If the iPhone 6 performs as well as in the hands of consumers as it did during yesterday’s demo by Tim Cook and other Apple executives, then Apple’s major change shift to a 64-bit operating system announced back in September 2013 may prove to have been the watershed moment in Apple’s product roadmap. For it was last year that Apple shocked the industry with the introduction of their own A7 system-on-a-chip design, which supported the 64-bit instruction set licensed from the UK-based chip design firm ARM. At the time there was a lot of speculation whether the advancement from 32-bit to 64-bit computing was really significant for small mobile devices. Google is not there yet.
They have previewed an Android “L” operating system, which supports 64-bit computing, but it’s not available yet. And high-end Samsung Galaxy “phablets” offer 64-bit hardware, but they don’t have a real 64-bit operating system. Since last year Apple has had both — and yesterday they announced their newest system-on-a-chip design for the iPhone 6 — the A8. This 20nm chip contains 2 billion transistors — making it 25% faster than last year’s A7. Yet supposedly it’s 50% more efficient and will provide longer battery life with better performance. On the flip-side, while Apple designs its chips — it does not fabricate them. In fact, much to Apple’s consternation, it has relied on Samsung to fabricate all its iPhone chips, including last year’s 64-bit A7 chip. No longer. Apple has contracted manufacturing of the A8 chip to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) located southwest of Taipei in Taiwan. It’s not yet clear if the next generation of chips, the A9 (speculated to have wiring as small as 16 nm) will be fabricated by TSMC as well or perhaps Apple will have to return to Samsung for its high-technology fab expertise.
Three Industry Sectors That Will Feel the Effect of Apple’s IPhone 6
IPhone as Game Console? Yes.
The first industry that will feel the impact of the iPhone 6 is the gaming and entertainment sector. Yesterday, Tim Cook led off the iPhone 6 demo with a new game called Vain Glory authored by Super Evil Megacorp (seriously!) that takes advantage of Apple’s new graphics API called ‘metal‘.
Vain Glory is a very impressive demonstration of the capabilities of the A8 chip design. Tim Cook announced that their strategy is to make the iPhone competitive or even better than existing gaming consoles. We won’t know for sure if Apple has delivered on the promise this time, but it’s clear the direction that they are taking. In fact last night after the Apple product launch, there was wild speculation that Microsoft would respond by buying the popular Mindcraft game franchise. If this is true, perhaps they are little spooked by Apple’s inroads into the game console market, as the Xbox is one of the few bright spots among Microsoft’s consumer electronic device offerings.
Apple Pay. It Could Replace the Credit Cards in Your Wallet
The second industry sector may be the sleeper; we talked about this last week that Apple was in discussions with major credit card companies for some kind of a payment system. Tim Cook announced it officially yesterday, it will be called Apple Pay and it does indeed rely on a Near Field Communication (NFC) protocol, which Apple has built into the A8 chip. This particular chip component is called Secure Element. (Hopefully the name rings true, especially after the fiasco of last week’s hacked celebrity iCloud photos.)
If Apple Pay is successful, this could place Apple at the center of consumer shopping transactions at physical stores. Cook explained Apple Pay will also be used to automate secure transactions online. We will have to see how this works in practice, but this too could have a important long-term impact on managing e-commerce security by leveraging the iPhone’s biometric identity functionality.
Health Monitoring Tackles Altitude
Like the A7 chip, Apple’s newly announced A8 chip relies on a dedicated motion coprocessor, which is called (logically enough) the M8 chip. (Unfortunately, it’s easy to confuse this nomenclature with the chip in the new ARM-based HTC phone, which is also sometimes called the M8, but these are not related designs.) The M8 motion coprocessor is very sophisticated. Like its predecessor, the M7, it has a built-in accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. Cook announced that the new M8 adds a built-in barometer for detecting altitude changes, such as when you climb stairs. This means that software developers using the HealthKit API to write biometric healthcare apps will be able to access your physical activity and distinguish between things like running or bicycling. The motion coprocessor also works when the device is in sleep mode.
Given the breadth of these new measurement capabilities, as well as the biometric measurement capabilities of the sensational new Apple Watch (which we will discuss next week), we agree with many analysts that Apple is poised to lead a new revolution in healthcare apps. Time will tell. And that in fact is as much time as we have to discuss yesterday’s announcements about the iPhone 6. We will return next week with an in-depth look at the revolutionary Apple Watch and what it portends for industrial design and product engineering trends in the coming year.
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