Details including the number of models, size of screens and exact components going into new iPhones have proven impossible for Apple to keep secret in the past, owing to factory leaks and early prototypes sent to accessory makers, and this year has been no different.
Many insiders and leakers agree the company is preparing to unveil four phones — which we could speculatively call iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Mini, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max — comprising perhaps its most diverse line-up yet.
If all goes as expected, Apple will be introducing its smallest full-screen phone with a display size of 5.4 inches, as well as standard and Pro models at 6.1 inches and a Pro Max at 6.7. That larger phone would carry the biggest screen on an iPhone to date, in line with Samsung’s Galaxy Note20.
Diversity may be a double-edged sword here. On the one hand, cheaper iPhone models will be desirable in a time of recession, with the traditional expensive options also there for those who can afford them. But on the other hand, global manufacturing capacity is being squeezed and we may see some models more readily available than others.
Apple’s not alone in being impacted by the pandemic, of course. Google has released its least expensive 2020 smartphone, the Pixel 4a, but its 5G-enabled larger 4a and Pixel 5 are set for a mid-October release, much later than usual. In addition the phones come in fewer colours than you would otherwise expect (just black, except for the Pixel 5 which also comes in green).
And while plans for the Pixel line-up would have been made well in advance, Google’s marketing has leant into how pandemic-ready its phones are: facial recognition has been replaced by reliable old fingerprint sensors, all phones are under $1000, and they have big batteries.
Apple, too, will face the prospect of framing at least some of its phones as ideal for pandemic conditions, and presumably that role will fall to the iPhone 12 Mini.
With this year’s budget iPhone SE currently starting at $749, there’s room for the Mini to come in at $1000 or lower, then the standard iPhone 12 could stick to last year’s iPhone 11 price of $1200 or go lower. Last year’s Pro models debuted at $1749 and $1899, and there’s no specific reason to expect the prices will be lower in 2020.
Danny Adamopoulos, Motorola’s product manager for Australia, said the impact of COVID-19 meant consumers were looking to spend less on phones.
“People aren’t willing to spend $1500 to $2000 on a device. And as consumers are staying close to home at the moment, they’re not needing a top-end device,” he said.
“What we’re seeing in our own products is that the mid-tier devices have surged. Consumers are still buying phones, but they’re buying something that they need just for right now.”
Fingerprint scanners, which have proved a much more reliable method of authentication than facial recognition as many people around the world wear masks outside the home, seem possible but unlikely for iPhone 12. Apple recently unveiled an iPad Air with a fingerprint reader built into the power button, but it’s unclear if it would have had time to adapt it for a phone.
All four iPhone 12 models are expected to pack Apple’s new A14 Bionic system on a chip — which also debuted in the iPad Air and promises faster processing, graphics and machine learning — alongside 5G connectivity, which will bring Apple’s smartphones technologically into line with Samsung’s and Google’s.
Telcos including Telstra and Optus are banking on the new iPhones to spur uptake of their 5G networks, which will eventually offer faster network speeds, lower latency and more capacity across Australia’s metro areas and beyond.
Foad Fadaghi, managing director of Telsyte, said he expected the phones to drive adoption of the new technology just as Apple’s first 4G phone did in 2014.
“New connectivity technology is often a major driver for consumer upgrades, particularly among those that have held onto their handsets for an extended period,” he said.
“Approximately 40 per cent of iPhone users in a recent Telsyte survey indicated their next smartphone must support 5G technology.”
Telsyte data indicates that about 8.8 million Australians use iPhones, or about 42 per cent of smartphone users aged 16 and above.
But Alex Choros, managing editor of phone and internet comparison site Whistleout, said uptake of the new iPhone wouldn’t necessarily lead to uptake of 5G right away.
“People buy a new iPhone because it’s a new iPhone. Some of them will use it with a plan that has 5G access, but they don’t buy just because it has 5G,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a sexy benefit.”
Whistleout data shows that even with popular new 5G phones such as those released by Samsung, most users have less expensive plans that do not include 5G access.
Choros said that, for Telstra customers in particular, the large amount of data on offer with non-5G plans, combined with the very high speed of the 4G network and limited 5G footprint, meant consumers would be reluctant to pay extra for 5G access even if they had a 5G phone.
“Anyone right now will be wondering what extra value they’re getting by paying for 5G,” he said.
“It certainly could be a lot more useful in two years when app developers have had time to take advantage of it and when coverage is more ubiquitous.”
A Telstra spokesperson said its 5G network — the fastest and broadest according to benchmark data from consultancy firm Umlaut — currently covers about a third of the population, that 10 million Australians live, work or pass through the footprint each day and that 210,000 mobile devices are connected to it.
But none of that data indicates how many 5G-capable phones using 5G-capable plans are active on the network, which is information the spokesperson said Telstra doesn’t release. The telco plans to extend its 5G coverage to 75 per cent of the population by June 2021.
Beyond 5G, the iPhone is also expected to receive its biggest facelift since 2017’s iPhone X, with flat metal edges replacing the rounded corners on current devices, creating an outline reminiscent of classic iPhones or the recent iPad Pros.
All models are also expected to come with OLED screens, while the iPhone 12 Pro pair are tipped to come with triple cameras and a LiDAR scanner for advanced depth mapping.
Despite an aggressive move into services from music and games to TV and fitness, which will surely help Apple make money even from those not upgrading this year, selling new iPhones remains a key part of its business. The smartphone generates about half of the revenue for the company that was, earlier this year, valued at more than $US2 trillion ($2.8 trillion).
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.