On September 12, Apple CEO Tim Cook took the stage at the company’s just-unveiled Steve Jobs Theater inside its lavish new 175-acre headquarters in Cupertino, California. It was a big day for Apple, and not just because the company would go on to introduce five new products over the course of two hours. The event was also the first public glimpse inside Apple’s much-hyped “spaceship” campus, which Jobs himself helped plan before his death in October 2011.
It was thus fitting that Cook invoked his predecessor’s famous catchphrase to headline the event’s biggest announcement. “But we’re not stopping there,” he said of the iPhone 8, a conventional upgrade to the current iPhone 7 series, before unveiling the radically different iPhone X. “We do have one more thing.”
The iPhone X, casually referred to as the “10th anniversary iPhone” by the media over the past several months, looks almost nothing like Apple’s other smartphones. Its sharper OLED screen stretches from corner to corner of the device’s front. There is no Home button. And a slender black enclave above the display houses a thicket of cutting-edge sensors that let the iPhone recognize you by scanning your face.
These represent the biggest changes to an iPhone in years, and every one feels necessary. Though popular worldwide, the iPhone has fallen behind its Android rivals. The gigantic curved screens on Samsung’s latest Galaxy phones make the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus look archaic. The list of things Android phones can do that iPhones can’t had grown by leaps and bounds ahead of last Tuesday’s announcement: facial recognition, iris scanning, wireless charging, virtual and augmented reality, and compatibility with accessories that support special features like 360-degree video.
Though not yet widespread, these features have made something clear: Android phone designers have been trying new ideas while Apple’s approach has remained largely static. Some of the company’s biggest smartphone ideas over the past two years have been lackluster: water resistance, the removal of the headphone jack, and a pressure-sensitive screen. While they definitely make the iPhone more useful, they’re hardly eye-opening.
Some of that’s just Apple being Apple: The company rarely debuts never-before-seen technology, instead aiming to perfect and mainstream existing ideas. The iPhone X is both the latter and something more—a push in a specific direction involving particular forms of cutting-edge technology. If the company’s fan-less, ultralight 12-inch MacBook was about establishing Apple’s vision for a solid state, single-cable, all-day computing device, the iPhone X is about proclaiming where smartphone intelligence, convenience and security features go from here.
The industry has been waiting for Apple to draw these lines in the sand. The company made it clear that it’s placing its bets on augmented reality back in June when it unveiled ARKit, a new set of tools that make it easier for developers to create apps that use your phone’s camera to mix virtual objects with the real world. The iPhone X is Apple doubling down on the technology, with cameras calibrated for AR and face-scanning algorithms that make it easier for apps like Snapchat to map virtual masks onto a user’s face. Unveiling a flagship smartphone that takes these kinds of distinctive leaps—assuming they turn out to be the right ones—is partly Apple reminding the public of its reputation as a global innovator.
Apple doesn’t need the iPhone X to be a hit with customers to keep its iPhone business healthy, of course. At $999, the iPhone X is hardly an impulse buy. There are plenty of people, especially those upgrading from a two-year-old model like the iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, who just want a new phone that’s faster and offers better battery life. That’s what the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are for. The iPhone X may ostensibly sell fewer units, but it’s already paying dividends in public mindshare as Apple’s new technological beacon.
When Apple unveiled the first iPhone in January 2007, Android co-creator Andy Rubin was in a cab on his way to a meeting at the Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas. He’d asked his driver to pull over so he could finish watching the announcement.
“Holy crap, I guess we’re not going to ship that phone,” Rubin said to a colleague, according to Fred Vogelstein’s account in his book Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution. Rubin was referring to what was almost the first Android phone, a device nicknamed “Sooner,” that had a BlackBerry-like keyboard and a screen that wasn’t touch-enabled. After seeing the iPhone, the Android team went back to the drawing board.
Had Apple shown us only the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus after this year’s wave of innovative new Android phones, I imagine the roles would have been reversed. The iPhone X’s arrival now is thus a bellwether moment—a looming referendum buyers are going to make about whose face-mapped, cable-free, augmented reality vision is the most compelling.