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In the midst of so much technological change and economic uncertainty, the iPhone 12 will hit the market at a complicated moment.

Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Apple CEO Tim Cook
Power

Why this year’s iPhone launch matters more than most for Apple

Tuesday could be a big moment for Apple One, 5G, AR and more. Or it could highlight the tech industry's biggest problems.

On Tuesday, Apple will announce a new iPhone. This is not news: Apple has announced a new iPhone every fall for more than a decade.

But something's different about this year's launch.

In the midst of a pandemic and a heated election season, a new iPhone may sound low-stakes. But this year, the immediate future of 5G seems to hang in the balance. So does Apple's push into services. Whether Apple and its suppliers can keep up with a "supercycle" of demand that many analysts predict will say a lot about the world's supply chains. And how — or whether — Apple talks about augmented reality will help define the narrative on that tech for a while to come.

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In a way, the launch of the iPhone 12 doubles as something like The State of the Tech Union. And a lot of people will be watching.

As for what Apple is expected to launch at its "Hi, Speed" event, it obviously starts with the iPhone 12. Or iPhone 12s, plural: Bloomberg reported Apple will have four models, ranging up to a 6.7-inch device that would be Apple's biggest iPhone ever. They're reportedly all getting new designs and updated displays. Some models are widely expected to offer 5G connectivity, and at least one will likely have a lidar chip that would help the device map the real world in real time, making for much more powerful (and accurate) AR experiences.

The phones may not be the only announcements at Tuesday's event. Apple has reportedly developed a pair of over-ear AirPods, and it has stopped selling other companies' similar products in the Apple Store in the run-up to their launch. Cupertino's not giving up on the HomePod, either: It may have a smaller, cheaper model to show off. And this could be the time for Apple to finally launch AirTags, its location-tracking Tile competitor that's been rumored and leaked for years.

But the iPhone is the thing. It's still Apple's golden goose, bringing in $26.4 billion for Apple in the last quarter alone, more than all its other hardware combined. And the iPhone deserves some credit for the $13.1 billion in services revenue Apple generated last quarter: The iPhone is the tip of the spear for Apple Music and its estimated 68 million subscribers, and the primary source of the half-trillion dollars Apple proudly said flowed through the App Store in 2019.

The iPhone is also Apple's best chance to turn its services bundle, Apple One, into an Amazon Prime-level smash hit. Apple has a long history of bundling its services (and the occasional U2 album) with new iPhones, and the company's unlikely to miss a chance to introduce tens of millions of upgraders to the latest and greatest in Apple software. The iPhone doesn't just make Apple money: It's an unbeatable marketing engine for almost everything else that makes Apple money.

That power, of course, is precisely what developers and competitors have begun to fight. Whether it's Epic and Fortnite or the many demands of the Coalition for App Fairness, the industry understands more than ever exactly how much power the iPhone gives Apple. As long as most users are on recent, updated iPhones, there's practically no pressure on Apple to loosen its policies or pull back on its values: People buying iPhones is affirmation of the company's values, it can say. Developers and competitors have no choice but to play by Apple's rules. (At least, until regulators say otherwise.)

Heavy-handed pronouncements of the iPhone's imminent death are a staple of the industry — and have never been true. Even its one blip in sales growth was followed by a roaring quarter. This year's iPhones arrive at an uncertain moment, though: Apple's reportedly building at least 75 million devices, roughly in line with last year's figure. Some see things going even better; analysts are throwing around phrases like "once in a decade opportunity" and "upgrade supercycle." "We expect this fall's launch to be the most significant iPhone event in years," Morgan Stanley's Katy Huberty wrote last week.

At the same time, unemployment numbers are staggering, the stock market whipsaws, supply chains are constrained, and there are a dozen reasons to be uncertain around the future. Last time there was a big recession, the iPhone was barely a year old and most people were still thumbing their BlackBerries. There's also a growing belief that buying the latest, greatest smartphone is a waste of money. Apple has projected confidence through the pandemic, but nobody's sure what happens next.

The stakes for the iPhone 12 go far beyond Apple, too. Qualcomm is reportedly providing the 5G modems for the devices, which will be a big test of its tech. It'll also test the wireless carriers, which may soon see exponential growth in the number of people using their still-new networks. They're surely hoping to not repeat 2012, when the iPhone 5 crushed LTE networks for a long time after its launch. Most of all, the 5G industry is hoping Apple will convince people to upgrade to 5G. So far, the (false) idea that 5G causes cancer seems more prevalent than the idea that it's a must-have new feature.

Apple's rarely the first to launch a new feature, but it leads the industry's conversations with almost everything it does. (One recent example: home screen widgets. It was like the whole world discovered the idea together, never mind that Android has had widgets forever.) So when Tim Cook and his team talk about lidar and explain why augmented-reality is going to be cool and fun and useful, folks at Oculus, Magic Leap, Microsoft and elsewhere will take note. If Apple talks about high-refresh-rate displays, all the companies already selling them will sit up straight.

Apple doesn't want to be The iPhone Company anymore, and it's making progress in that direction. But for now it's still The iPhone Company. Everything it does, every bit of the power it has to shape and change the industry, starts with the iPhone. In the midst of so much technological change and economic uncertainty, the iPhone 12 may be — for better or for worse — the most consequential one yet.

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