source-codesource codeauthorDavid PierceNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

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.

Apple CEO Tim Cook

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

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.

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.

Politics

'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

What the Biden administration can learn from Ajit Pai’s FCC

The Biden administration's goals for internet infrastructure would be best pursued using economic incentives rather than heavy-handed directives, argues Douglas Holtz-Eakin.

FCC chairman Ajit Pai gave the private sector plenty of latitude. Will that continue under the Biden administration after Pai steps down?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai prepares to step down on Jan. 20, there are more than a few lessons the incoming Biden administration could learn from his tenure at the agency. Perhaps the most important lesson is that each of the new administration's goals for internet infrastructure — bridging the digital divide, universal broadband, rapid deployment of 5G — is best pursued using a regulatory approach that emphasizes economic incentives over heavy-handed directives.

Since March 1, internet usage has increased by roughly 30%, yet our networks have not buckled under pandemic-era pressures. Unlike much of Europe, we have not seen our access or speeds limited. This level of resilience is no accident. Under Pai, the private sector has had the appropriate incentives and latitude to do what it does best: invest in opportunity and innovate. The regulatory strategy and decisions got us to where we are today.

Keep Reading Show less
Douglas Holtz-Eakin
Douglas Holtz-Eakin (@djheakin) is president of the American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office.
Power

Microsoft wants to use AR to see through fog and smoke

Apple autonomous cars, AI coffee orders, emailing help and other patents from Big Tech.

See what isn't there.

Image: Microsoft/USPTO

It's beyond dark out at 5:30 p.m. these days, so perhaps, as you're stuck at home with nowhere to go, you're tempted to log off your bad screen and onto your good screen a little earlier than you should. Perhaps that's what happened over at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as this was a bit of a fallow week for patents from Big Tech.

That being said, there were still a few neat ones out there: Microsoft is looking into using AR to actually augment what you see; Apple is hard at work on autonomous vehicles; and Facebook, for some reason, is very concerned about the longevity of magnetic tapes.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

Microsoft wants you to live on as a digital chatbot

Drone blimps, emotional video editing, better Apple Watches and other patents from Big Tech.

Is this the future of customer service or a really creepy way to honor loved ones who've died? Maybe both!

Image: USPTO

Hello patent roundup readers! It's been a while since I've brought you the latest Big Tech filings from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Blame Thanksgiving and the latest Protocol Manuals. But never fear: We're back now, and there were some truly great patents from the last few weeks. Amazon wants to edit content when it thinks you're sad and blanket the world in drone blimps; Apple is thinking about making long-living wearables; and Microsoft wants to digitally resurrect your dead loved ones.

And remember: The big tech companies file all kinds of crazy patents for things, and though most never amount to anything, some end up defining the future.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

Power

How Syng wants to take on Apple’s HomePod

Key former Apple employees are helping the secretive startup build spatial audio speakers.

A new patent application features highly detailed renders of a speaker product in development at the secretive audio startup Syng.

Image: USPTO

Secretive audio startup Syng has a plan to take on smart speaker giants like Apple, Google, Amazon and Sonos: It's building immersive audio speaker technology that's meant to replace your 5.1 living room setup, make you feel like you're on stage with the band, and one day supply the soundtrack for apps running on your AR glasses.

Word of Syng's existence first surfaced in May, when the Financial Times reported that the company was helmed by longtime Apple designer Christopher Stringer as well as key HomePod engineer Afrooz Family. Now, a newly filed patent application reveals not only how Syng's technology works but also shows detailed renders of what may well be Syng's still-unannounced first product.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories