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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

What to Expect From Apple's Big iPhone Event This Wednesday

Later this week, Apple will almost certainly reveal at least two new iPhones, along with some other hardware. This year's launch is framed around the fact that it's an "S" year, which usually means that last year's phones get some updated internals, camera improvements, and an "S" affixed to their names. In other words, it might not be a year of radical design rethinks.

But to focus entirely on the iPhone would mean missing the bigger picture around Apple's hardware events. The company's strategy increasingly involves its broader product ecosystem and its services. It wants to get customers more tightly locked in to its products—an Apple Watch only works with an iPhone, after all—and it wants to get them using more of its cloud-based software.

Apple says it has 1.3 billion active devices around the world, a 30 percent increase in activations from 2016. And the iPhone accounts for more than half of Apple's revenue. But sales of iPhone have slowed over the past couple years. Sales of Apple's Mac computers dropped last quarter, too. Its services business, meanwhile, which includes the App Store, iCloud, and Apple Music, has been fast-growing.

So while we're going to see lots of shiny new things this week, for sure (and WIRED will be on site at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino to report on all the announcements), it's important to keep in mind that Apple isn't only trying to sell you a phone. It wants to sell you on the Apple life. And that's a big commitment to consider, even if you're someone who will gladly spend $1,000 on a glimmering new handset.

Phone Home

With all that said, the new iPhones are going to be the most noteworthy announcement of this event. If all the rumors prove to be true, this year's iPhone lineup will embody classic product differentiation.

There may be a phone that looks a lot like last year's 5.8-inch iPhone X with an OLED display, but it will be the iPhone XS, and it might come in gold. (The event invitations sent to media displayed an infinite loop, in gold.) The same report from Bloomberg suggests that a 6.1-inch phone with an LCD display could ship; this would be a "cheaper" alternative to the premium iPhone X models, although "cheap" is a relative term. It's also expected that Apple will launch a larger iPhone; possibly its biggest ever, with a 6.5-inch display. And one of the most persistent rumors is that the company could drop the "Plus" moniker for its big-phone line and call it "Max" instead.

Bigger questions remain around the feature updates or changes that will impact how users actually interact with the new handsets. Will they all be bezel-less phones with notches at the top? Will they all lose the home button? Last year's iPhone X required a learning curve for some people; the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus offered a more familiar design for those who weren't ready to ditch the home button. Will all of the new models this year have FaceID, or will Apple save that for its top-of-the-line phones? Will any of the phones have a camera that is significantly better than the other models?

We have no answers yet, but it's a safe bet that there will be a very expensive, aspirational phone for the people who need the absolute best smartphone, and at least one other model that comes in at a slightly lower tier. At the same time, look for discounts the day of the event on the older phone models—because again, just getting people into its ecosystem is a win for Apple.

We're also expecting to see a new Apple Watch, a product category that Apple CEO Tim Cook said earlier this year is "now the size of a Fortune 300 company." This watch is likely to be be called the Apple Watch Series 4, although as those who have been following it closely know, it's the fifth watch (the OG Apple Watch didn't have a numeral attached to it, so Apple Watch 1 was the second model, and so on). Image leaks of the new smartwatch suggest it could have a new edge-to-edge display, a denser interface, and a redesigned crown.

Soft Goods

Apple consistently previews new software in the spring, runs a beta program all summer, then releases the official version of the software in the fall. This year is no exception: Expect to see iOS 12, the latest iPhone software, rolled out the week after the iPhone launch event. This software release is a big deal. For iPhone users who don't plan to buy a new phone this year, iOS 12 could bring significant changes to their current devices.

Key features in iOS 12 include grouped notifications (like Android notifications), a smarter Photos app (like Google's Photos app), and a smarter Siri (which has some catching up to do with Google's Assistant). It's supposed to make your phone more secure. And iOS 12 will also include Screen Time features, which are designed to limit the amount of time you spend mindlessly scrolling through your phone. Social media apps? Bad! You should limit those. Apple's own apps…well, that depends on who you ask….

Wild Cards

As referenced earlier, Bloomberg reported last month that Apple plans to launch three new iPhones this year: the upgrade to the iPhone X, the larger phone with a 6.5-inch display, and the less expensive device. What's still unclear at this point is when these will all ship. Last year, the rollout of the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X were staggered: the 8 shipped in September, and the X followed later in the fall. It's possible that one of this year's phone models won't ship until later—especially if there are manufacturing challenges, as has been reported.

A pro-focused refresh of the Mac Mini is also a possibility at this week's event, since that model hasn't been updated in four years. Although, Apple could have another event later in the fall solely to roll out new Mac products. The company is also said to be planning a new, low-cost MacBook, something that would be similar in design and price to the MacBook Air, which also hasn't gotten a major update in years.

It's hard to say where this new MacBook would fit into Apple's broader laptop lineup, which ranges from the super-expensive, specced out Pro laptops, to the so-slim-it-might-be-an-iPad 12-inch MacBook. The most persistent rumor is that the new MacBook will be a more affordable 13-inch model. Considering that Apple updated all of its MacBook Pros this summer except for the 13-inch model without a Touch Bar, it certainly seems like the company is keeping shelf space open for a new, more accessible machine.

Let's hope it has a better keyboard.

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