Flashback: Apple is slow to adopt new tech, but only on iPhones
The iPhone 5 was announced on September 12 2012, ten years ago. It was the first iPhone to ditch the 30-pin dock connector inherited from the iPods as it introduced the Lightning adapter.
It was the first reversible data connector on mobile devices, previous ones – both proprietary and USB – had a “polarity”, that is to say that there was only one correct orientation.
While once upon a time this was an advantage over phones that used microUSB, it is now seen as a downside and everyone is just waiting for Apple to adopt USB-C.
For all its influence over the smartphone market, Apple is sometimes very slow in adopting new technology. This week we will look at several examples, starting with the just mentioned USB-C.
USB-C: 8 years
Okay, it hasn’t happened yet, but EU legislation has made it all but certain that Apple will switch iPhones to USB-C in 2023. The law won’t kick in until 2024, but as new iPhones are introduced late in the year, analysts expect that the switchover will happen in 2023 with the iPhone 15 series.
An iPhone X modified with a USB-C port by Ken Pillonel
It’s not just the EU either, the US and Brazil are considering similar laws that will make USB-C mandatory for phones (and possibly, though not necessarily, other portable electronics).
The first Android phones to use USB-C started appearing in 2015, that means that Apple will be 8 years late to the party. The first phone was the LeTV One Max (remember LeTV?).
Funnily enough, that also means that the first iPhone with USB-C will arrive 5 years after the first iPad switched away from Lightning (that were the iPad Pros from 2018). Even funnier, Apple released one of the first USB-C devices ever, the 12” MacBook from 2015.
Quad Bayer sensors: 4 years
After several years of using 12MP cameras Apple finally made the jump to a high-res Quad Bayer sensor. That is only for the Pro models, of course, Apple has a conservative approach to adopting new tech after all.
For years the Nokia 808 PureView reigned as the highest resolution camera phone – 41MP with a standard Bayer filter. Then in 2018 the select Huawei P20 and Mate 20 would almost match it with 40MP sensors. At the very end of 2018 the Nokia was finally dethroned (in terms of resolution) by the Huawei nova 4 and Honor View 20 and their 48MP cameras.
Anyway, the Huawei P20 Pro camera had a Quad Bayer sensor – a brand new thing in mobile back then – we had to do a dedicated article to explain what it does. It allows for things like single shot HDR (half the pixels take a short exposure, the other half a long one), the extra resolution enables lossless digital zoom (as the 808 handily demonstrated) and, of course, there is always the option to apply demosaicing to reverse the binning and get a higher resolution photo.
By the way, the Nokia 808 PureView was famous not just for the resolution of its camera sensor, but for its size too. The iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max sensors are nearly the same size – 1/1.2” for the Nokia and 1/1.28” for the iPhones.
5G: 1.5 year
The iPhone 11 series arrived in 2019 sporting only a 4G LTE modem. It wouldn’t be until the iPhone 12 series in 2020 that Apple would make the jump to 5G. The reason behind this doesn’t have anything to do with market strategy or Apple being its usual stubborn self.
Instead, it was an unpleasant mix of Apple and Qualcomm having a patent beef and Intel’s modem division failing to deliver. Apple eventually had to settle with Qualcomm and it is currently using Snapdragon X modems.
There were rumors of Samsung, MediaTek and even Huawei potentially supplying modems, but those didn’t pan out (Huawei even denied that this was ever an option, Samsung reportedly didn’t have modems to spare, MediaTek did want to make it happen, though).
All attention is now on Apple’s own modem division, which includes Intel’s modem business which was sold to Cupertino in 2019. Some analysts believe that the modem is ready for action, but that it is being held back by patent licensing issues.
The first 5G phone was the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which came out in early 2019. Unless you want to count the Moto Z3, which was unveiled in mid-2018 and had an optional 5G mod (although that only went on pre-order in 2019, so it doesn’t really change the math). So, Apple was 18 months behind, it just feels longer because Android makers suddenly released dozens upon dozens of 5G phones.
Always On display: 6 years (at least)
Apple was a pioneer of LTPO display panels since it needed the extra energy efficiency to enable Always-On Display mode for the Apple Watch Series 5 in 2019. Of course, this same feature wouldn’t be available on iPhones until just this week – the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max are the first (and only) in the family to have AOD.
Back in the day some feature phones could switch their LCDs to transflective mode, which gave them a highly legible, very power efficient mode that allowed them to display the time and notification icons all week long. There were also the oddball phones like the YotaPhone, which had an e-Ink display on its back (this was always on too, since e-Ink only uses power when updating, not when it shows a static image).
But putting those aside, the first Android phones to get AOD arrived in 2016 – these were the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5. Back then AOD came with a notable hit to standby battery life, these days things are much better.
Above we dismissed oddball solutions, but we think one is worth a mention. The LG V10 from 2015 had a secondary display above the main one, which had its own display driver and backlight that allowed it to stay on all the time.
Wireless charging: 8 years
As with AOD, wireless charging first came on Apple Watches (with the very first one, actually, in 2014), and it would be a few years before it arrives on iPhones. The first smartphone with wireless charging was the influential Palm Pre from 2009. The Pres were the only real option for a couple of years (with their fancy magnetic Touchstone chargers).
Other platforms would eventually also offer wireless options with the likes of the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Nexus 4 from 2012. It took a while, but eventually everyone settled on the Qi standard (PMA was a thing for a few years).
The iPhone 8 and X generation in 2017, the end of the classic iPhone design and the dawn of the notch, also brought wireless charging support on Apple’s phones. Then in 2020 Apple unveiled MagSafe, which included magnets to hold the phone and charger firmly attached (and some snap-on accessories like wallets). Of course, the Pre did that from the start.
Notch: 3 months
Some of you may think that the iPhone X brought the notch curse to this world, but they would be wrong. Well, technically wrong, the iPhone X is certainly the phone that made it popular.
But it wasn’t the first to have a notch – not one but two Android phones beat it to the punch by three months. The Sharp Aquos S2 came out on August 14 and it was followed by the Essential Phone just days later. Both pushed their LCDs up to the top of the phone, leaving the selfie camera into a sort of peninsula, aka the notch.
The notch is born: Sharp Aquos 2 • The Essential Phone
The slim top bezels aren’t the only thing that tempted Android makers into this design, of course. The iPhone X ditched the fingerprint reader and offered 3D face scanning as a secure way to unlock the phone. Android makers toyed around with similar tech (and related tech like Google’s Project Soli radar), but quickly went back to fingerprint readers.
Of course, these days that means an under-display fingerprint reader for many phones above the entry-level. That is technology that Apple has refused to adopt so far, despite copious rumors about it. Maybe one day.
We think this is a good place to leave things for the day. There is a lot we didn’t cover – having mentioned the fingerprint reader, the technology predates the iPhone 5s. However, it was the first phone that made the FP reader work well, as earlier attempts (chronicled in this post) didn’t get it right.
There is more ground to cover, things like water resistance, autofocus on the selfie camera and so on. And the “Dynamic Island”, which is a punch hole with better marketing. If there is enough interest, we can do a part 2.