When will the iPhone 9 be released in the UK, and how different will it look from today's smartphones in terms of features, design and tech specs? And what about the new smartphones Apple launches in 2020 and beyond? What will the smartphone of the future look like?
At Macworld we spend a lot of time wondering about the next generation of Apple devices (and if you share our curiosity, take a look at our iPhone 7s, iPhone 8, iPad mini 5, iPad Pro 2, Apple Watch 3 and Apple Car rumour articles). But sometimes it pays to take a step back and think about the longer term, and the bigger picture. Where is technology going? What does the future hold? And what will Apple's smartphones look like in 2018, in 2020, in 2030 and beyond?
In this article we discuss some of the paths smartphone technology could take in the coming years, starting with the iPhone 9, which by current trends ought to appear somewhere between 2018 and 2020. (It all depends if Apple continues to release 'S' class upgrades between the full-number updates.) As we move further into the future our predictions will by necessity become more speculative, and many of these paths will no doubt turn out to be blind alleys. But we're happy to put on our future goggles and make some predictions about trends we're expecting in the next few years. If you want to know what kind of iPhone you'll be brandishing in the future, read on.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Battery & charging developments
Again and again the UK Tech Weekly Podcast returns to the topic of 'peak smartphone': the idea that the smartphone's golden period of rapid technological advances and wide experiential differences (between one generation and the next, or between one manufacturer and another) is now over.
The smartphone has become commoditised, and there are only small, iterative differences between the phone that just launched and the one you bought last year - hence less incentive to upgrade. Smartphones are now essentially 'good enough'.
Well, maybe. Perhaps the greatest potential growth area - yet, for various counterintuitive reasons, one of the most neglected thus far - is battery life. Battery tech keeps getting better, but smartphone makers (and Apple is just as guilty of this as anyone) keep cramming more power-hungry components into a slimmer chassis so the battery life ends up staying roughly the same.
In the next few years, we suspect, battery life is going to become more of a priority for phone makers and consumers. Partly this is because phones are now about as slim and fast as anyone could ever want; but partly it's because some cool battery tech developments are starting to come within the reach of mobile consumer budgets.
Stacked battery cells
One persistent rumour holds that Apple will take the battery tech it developed for the original 12-inch MacBook (and retained for the 2016 version) - whereby contoured, layered battery units are stacked inside the chassis in order to take up every possible inch of space - and use these to squeeze more battery capacity inside the fixed or even reduced volume that will be available in future iPhones.
Apple could even, thanks to the new technology, make more radical changes to the overall design of the iPhone, because its engineers would no longer to base their work on a fixed battery shape. Although the smartphone is such a mature market now that it would take a brave manufacturer to change its essential form - a bit like a mad microwave designer inventing one that's spherical.
The capacity and efficiency of batteries is sure to increase over the next few years, and may do so dramatically if lithium-oxygen cells (also known as lithium-air) become a reality. As a Nature study (you'll need to pay to read the full article) explains, Li–O2 batteries offer theoretically far higher lifetimes than the lithium-ion equivalents currently favoured in mobile devices - maybe as much as five times as much, although technological issues remain.
But we're still thinking in terms of conventional battery principles: batteries than need to be charged up from a mains supply, and then run down, and then need to be charged up again.
A different approach is offered by technologies such as motion charging, a principle that has been used in numerous watches going back many years and was reportedly considered by Apple when putting together the first Apple Watch. It uses kinetic energy from your own movements to charge up a battery cell - the traditional model would be for a wristwatch to harness the power of your arm swinging back and forth throughout the day, but similar methods have been used by wearable phone chargers that generate sufficient power in this way to give an extra hour of life to the average phone from a mere, er, 5,000 steps.
Okay, so the tech needs improvement to achieve mass-market acceptance, and it would be better still if technology of this kind could be integrated into the body of the phone itself (it's also vital for it to be able to collect a worthwhile amount of power from the smaller-scale movements experienced by a phone in a pocket or handbag rather than on the end of an arm). But it's an appealingly sustainable way of collecting some of that energy you're otherwise wasting on things like 'moving from one place to another' and 'getting fit'.
A similar technology category that seems likely in the foreseeable future to supplement rather than supplant traditional battery-charging methods is solar power. Sunpartner Technologies has developed a lightweight skin/case that wraps around a mobile device and collects energy from light that falls on it. This is designed to work with both indoor and natural light, but is obviously better with the latter; in the right circumstances the tech could add some 10 to 15 percent to battery life.
The patent suggests that Apple is planning to build solar cells underneath the touchscreen on smartphones in future. The panel would recharge during the day and you wouldn't need to plug your phone into the socket any more. Good for the planet, convenient for us.
So much for solar cells on your phone itself. But that's a relatively small area for collecting energy. What about the clothed surface area on your body?
University researchers have developed 'smart fibres' that can be used to create clothing that collects and stores solar energy throughout the day, then recharge portable devices that are running low on power. The fibres contain a dye-sensitised solar cell and a fibre supercapacitor, and can be cut and tailored without disrupting the operation of the energy collection process.
"Energy harvesting is significant," said Paul Weiss, editor-in-chief of ACS Nano, to Mashable.
"Will clothing be a significant contributor to the power we acquire and use? We do not know yet. But as a field, we are exploring these ideas in addition to addressing the question of 'how' energy harvesting might work."
There remain obstacles to overcome before solar clothing drops into the mainstream; for one thing, the dye used in this particular execution of the concept is environmentally unfriendly, according to the research team, containing potentially dangerous volatile organic compounds. The textile also isn't waterproof.
But give it a few years and we could all be wearing the stuff. Rigoberto Advincula, a professor of macromolecular science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, estimated that the first commercial product using this textile device could become available in about the next five years - most likely starting with military and outdoors applications.
Recycling a phone's wasted energy
While we're on the subject of energy-harvesting, technology exists right now that can recapture energy emitted from your phone in the form of radio waves (the wasted ones, not the ones essential to communication) and then feed it back into the battery. This isn't a long-term solution: some energy will inevitably be lost through emitted waves alone, and you've got all the power being used running the internal components and lighting up the screen, among other issues. But it means your battery runs down slower - 25 to 30 percent, the makers say.
These three in their present form - niche, semi-experimental, relatively costly, non-integrated, offering significant but not experience-changing increases to battery life and just generally a bit of a faff - are not enormously appealing to the average smartphone owner. But if we jump ahead 10 years, maybe less, imagine an iPhone with all three (and similar related tech) built discreetly into the case: harvesting energy from your bodily movements, from ambient light, and from the phone's own emitted radio waves. To the extent that battery life ceases to be a concern - to the extent, perhaps, where mobile batteries become self-sustaining. What a thought.
We are indebted for the help we gained when writing the above thoughts to Technology Review's helpful summary of the future of battery technology.
Self-healing battery tech
We're seeing lots of exciting breakthroughs in the field of battery technology. Most relate to more efficient and environmentally friendly ways of charging a battery. One of the weirdest focuses on another aspect entirely: mending a battery cell after it gets broken.
Researchers at the University of California, led by Amay Bandodkar, have created working examples of batteries containing magnetised particles that pull themselves back together after being snapped into two pieces as a form of makeshift self-healing. (You can read the study here.)
And the principle isn't limited to batteries: the researchers have also tested self-healing circuits and sensors.
Could a future smartphone use this development to mend itself after a catastrophic breakage? Probably not, although some version of it, a long way down the line, could make the internals of our consumer electronics better able to carry on working after suffering serious damage. (At present the healing process is more of a temporary workaround than a long-term fix.) The most likely applications, certainly in the short to medium term, lie in the field of low-cost electronic wearables.
(Via Popular Mechanics.)
Supercapacitor batteries 'that charge in seconds and last for a week'
A team of researchers at the University of Central Florida have come up with a tiny battery, based on supercapacitor technology, which charges much faster, lasts longer between charges and has a far longer lifespan that the batteries currently used in smartphones around the world.
Scientists report that the little battery needs to be charged for only a few seconds and will then last for days. And whereas typical lithium-ion batteries show deteriorating performance after 300 to 500 full charges, this battery is good for 30,000 charges.
Nitin Choudhary, a member of the research term, said that if you replaced smartphone batteries with the supercapacitors, "you could charge your mobile phone in a few seconds and you wouldn’t need to charge it again for over a week".
The researchers stressed that the technology is not yet close to commercial applications. "But this is a proof-of-concept demonstration and our studies show there are very high impacts for many technologies," said Yeonwoong Jung, an assistant professor with joint appointments at the NanoScience Technology Centre and the Materials Science and Engineering Department.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Physical design
iPhones are that lethal combination of expensive and fragile that results in so much consumer heartache. The result is that each iPhone owner has to make their own deal with the devil: either wrapping it in a robust case, thereby masking the handsome design that they paid all that money for in the first place, or risk pavement damage every time they take the thing out of a pocket.
This may not be the case in the future, given the wide range of futuristic durable supermaterials that could be used on the iPhones of 2020. In this section we look at the design developments that could make the iPhone 9 and later tougher than you could possibly imagine... as well as other fun changes to the exterior design.
Read next: How to repair a cracked iPhone screen
iPhone screens are already far tougher than your average piece of glass (they're made of a proprietary material called Gorilla Glass), but they do sometimes crack or even shatter when dropped. Sapphire screens would be more resistant still, and Apple is already using sapphire in the display of the Apple Watch: it's possible that the company is now ready to import this material into its smartphone line-up.
Rumoured plans to rely on an Apple-backed sapphire plant in Arizona (which had the capacity to manufacture 200 million 5-inch iPhone displays per year) fell through. But more recent reports suggest that long-term Apple supplier Foxconn is gearing up to build its own sapphire plant in Taiwan at a cost of $2.6bn.
In the form of the Kambala, Ilshat Garipov of Yanko Design has come up with a mad concept: a smartphone that clips on to your ear, like a Bluetooth earpiece, and then changes colour to match the side of your face so that it becomes essentially invisible.
To quote the firm:
"A continuous flexi-screen with plenty of sensors makes up the surface and has the ability to transmit the image on the inside of the phone to the outside. It does a chameleon act by blending in with your skin tone when you clip it to your ear."
It's a bit like the invisible car in Die Another Day. And, needless to say, just a concept at this point. We love the idea, though.
In August 2016, it was reported by Patently Apple that Apple filed patents for a curved glass iPhone with virtual buttons on the sides. If accurate, this could be somewhat like the rumoured OLED bar on the expected new MacBook Pro, but time will tell.
The patent images also show a curved glass screen similar to that which we have now seen made popular by Samsung's Galaxy S6 edge and S7 edge. This has helped to fuel the rumours that Apple is planning a major redesign for the iPhone to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the iPhone.
Either way, it'll have to be significantly different to Samsung's efforts if Apple is to avoid accusations of plagiarism. Then again, most smartphones of the past decade have aped the original iPhone, so we're sure that wouldn't prove problematic for Apple - particularly since these patents show its legal right to product the devices in this way.
Evidence was added to the 'curved iPhone' theory in January 2017, when Japan Display, a hardware partner of Apple's, confirmed to the Wall Street Journal [paywall article] that it is ready to start making "flexible screens". This doesn't refer to screens that can be bent by the user, but to screens that are flexed in manufacture to produce a display that curves down over the edge, like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge.
Japan Display didn't specify Apple by name, merely stating that it is building the displays for partners - but given that Apple is one of its partners, and a particularly secretive one at that, many Apple watchers are drawing their own conclusions.
But talking of screens that can be bent by the user...
...or a bendable iPhone
In January 2015 Apple was awarded a patent that suggests that the company is investigating the idea of a flexible iPhone (and we're not talking about the Bendgate kind).
The patent suggests that, by making the iPhone flexible, Apple could unlock a new range of controls: the user could open an app by bending the device in a particular way, for example, or use the flexibility to control a game. It's an intriguing if seemingly far-fetched concept.
Additionally, a flexible iPhone ought to be more resistant to impacts and therefore more durable. But we'll discuss a key element in the idea of a flexible iPhone - a screen that can bend without breaking - in the screen tech section.
An illustration from Apple's new patent. As one of Patently Apple's commenters points out, it looks a bit like an "iPhone DS"
As an update, in November 2016 Apple was granted another patent for a bendable smartphone, sparking further speculation that the iPhone 8 or more realistically iPhone 9 could be designed with a folding chassis.
Patent 9,485,862, spotted by Patently Apple, refers somewhat obliquely to 'Electronic devices with carbon nanotube printed circuits': the carbon nanotubes are the means by which the devices can be folded. It was filed back in August 2014 but was finally granted on 1 November 2016.
"Carbon nanotubes may be patterned to form carbon nanotube signal paths on the substrates," reads part of the patent's summary. "The signal paths may resist cracking when bent. A bent portion of a carbon nanotube signal path may be formed in a portion of a flexible substrate that traverses a hinge or other flexible portion of an electronic device."
Corning, the company that makes Gorilla Glass, responded to the looming threat of sapphire glass in early 2015 with the announcement of an ultra-hardened composite material codenamed Project Phire.
James Clappin, president of Corning Glass Technologies, told investors: "We told you last year that sapphire was great for scratch performance but didn't fare well when dropped. So we created a product that offers the same superior damage resistance and drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 with scratch resistance that approaches sapphire."
Apple never discusses the materials it uses for iPhone screens, but it's great news for consumers that suppliers are jostling to provide the best and most durable screen glass for their smartphones.
Read more about Project Phire here.
Sapphire glass is already being used on the non-Sport models of the first-gen Apple Watch and on every model of the Apple Watch Series 2, and Project Phire appears to be in a reasonably advanced state of development, but we're getting closer to the realms of science-fiction.
Graphite, the material used in standard pencils, is made up of stacks of sheets of carbon, each one only a single atom thick. This is why it's so good for writing: the layers naturally slide off on to the paper.
But graphene is a different matter. Graphene is what you get if you're clever enough to isolate one of the layers in graphite, leaving you with a substance that's effectively two-dimensional. It's the thinnest substance known to man, about a million times thinner than a human hair, and for that matter quite possibly the strongest (it's 100 times stronger than steel) and a phenomenally good electrical conductor - 1,000 times better than copper. Oh, and it's virtually transparent, too.
All of which makes graphene an exciting prospect for tech manufacturers. Most obviously, it would make for a tremendously durable coating material for the screen (and would lend itself to bendable displays, too) or indeed any part of the device; but it could really appear in almost any of the sections of this article. Graphene would be a superior replacement for silicon in processor chips, or could be used to make more efficient batteries and solar cells. It's marvellous stuff.
We're also pleased to report that graphene is British - sort of. It was discovered by the Soviet-born physicist Andre Geim at the University of Manchester, where it continues to be studied. (Entertainingly, Geim is the only scientist so far to be awarded both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel prize. Suck it, Planck!)
If you'd like to read more about graphene, I strongly recommend the New Yorker's article on the subject.
Let's move on from the screen and talk about new durable materials for the rest of the iPhone.
How about a bit of drop-resistance? Based on patent activity, Apple is devising a viscoelastic material that would absorb impacts. The material would cover Apple devices and make them survive drops far better. The patent could make sense in all of Apple's mobile devices and laptops, but the iPhone is the obvious area to begin.
The ability to spit out water
A patent published on 12 November 2015 suggests a peculiar but rather appealing solution to the waterlogging issue that has afflicted iPhones in the past (but shouldn't in future, since the iPhone 7 is rated IP67 water-resistant): a mechanism that lets an iPhone dry itself by pumping liquid out through its speaker grills.
Patent application 20150326959, wonderfully, is called LIQUID EXPULSION FROM AN ORIFICE.
"The embodiments described herein are directed to an acoustic module that is configured to remove all or a portion of a liquid that has accumulated within a cavity of the acoustic modules," the patent's summary reads.
The concept is centred around modules within the speaker cavities that can be made hydrophobic to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the charge applied to them: when liquid is detected, charges would be applied across the various modules in such a way that the liquid would be moved across the modules and ultimately expelled from the cavity.
Interestingly, Apple has used something along these lines in the Apple Watch Series 2, which can clear water out of its little speaker cavity by vibrating the speaker membrane:
Environmental sensors in the sensor cavity
Apple has applied for a patent, as spotted by AppleInsider, that relates to speaker cavities that feature environmental sensors. In theory the sensors would be able to analyse the air (or liquid) inside the cavity and report on the temperature, oxygen or carbon monoxide levels and so on. Your iPhone, some way down the line, could warn you of toxic gases in the vicinity, although it could be a better fit for the Apple Watch.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Screen developments
The screen is an iPhone's centrepiece and crowning glory: the medium via which you interact with your phone and your phone tells you about the world. iPhones don't historically tend to have the best screen resolution (despite the claims made on behalf of its proprietary Retina screen rating), but they are solidly sharp and highly responsive - and occasionally Apple evens adds new features, such as 3D Touch and Night Shift.
Here's where we see the iPhone screen heading in the next few years.
According to a Wall Street Journal source, an iPhone in the near future may feature an edgeless display - but what is that, exactly? According to the publication, Apple is to redesign the iPhone for the 10th anniversary and that the changes "could include an edge-to-edge organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, screen" without a physical Home button. John Gruber also commented on the upcoming redesign, claiming that Apple is to remove the bezels surrounding the display, providing users with an iPhone that looks almost like a sheet of glass.
"I've heard this independently and it is completely getting rid of the chin and forehead of the phone," Gruber said. "The entire face will be the display. And the Touch ID sensor will be somehow embedded in the display. The front-facing camera will somehow be embedded in the display. The speaker, everything. All the sensors will somehow be behind the display.
"What I don't know, and I have no idea, is whether that means that they're going to shrink the actual thing in your hand to fit the screen sizes we already have, or whether they're going to grow the screens to fit the devices we're already used to holding… I don't know."
...flexible or curved display...
The Nikkei report we linked to earlier predicts that autumn of this year will see a massive triple iPhone launch, and that the flagship model of this trio will feature a curved OLED screen that curves down over the sides. This is something we've already seen on rival devices, such as Samsung's S7 Edge and Note 7; it enables more screen space to be squeezed on to a device without making it any bigger, and you can also have notifications designed to be seen or activated on the edge of the screen.
"There will be a 4.7-inch model, another that will be 5.5 inches and a premium handset that will be either 5.5-inches or larger equipped with a screen bent on the two sides," said Nikkei's source, who is "familiar with Apple's plans".
As Nikkei notes, curved OLED screens are Samsung's speciality: if Apple chooses to go down this path, we could end up in the curious situation where Samsung supplies Apple with the screens to create a Note 7 killer. Then again, that wouldn't be the oddest situation those two companies have got themselves into, after continuing to work together while pursuing multi-billion-dollar lawsuits against one another in courtrooms around the globe.
Apple's Patent 9,146,590 refers to an "electronic device with wraparound display", and describes a curved screen that allows for more screen elements to be displayed without making the device significantly bigger. (Remember that the illustrations rarely represent what the designer has in mind. In theory the display could wrap entirely around the device, or at least extend over one edge like the Note Edge.)
While the patent talks about a "flexible display assembly", it's important to note that this isn't a patent for a bendable screen: the flexible portion of the display is attached to the interior surface of the curved transparent housing, which "provides a rigid support structure that prevents deformation".
But true flexibility can't be ruled out in the medium to long term. There are rumours, indeed, that Samsung could be making the display for the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, and that these would be flexible OLED screens - ET News says Samsung is investing billions in new factories and equipment to keep up with Apple's display orders for its next iPhones. And bendy display proofs of concept have been common for several years.
We think such a radical step is more likely to come to fruition closer to the end of the decade, particularly for a company as cautious as Apple when it comes to updating the designs of established and successful products.
An iPhone in the near future could come with a 3D display, according to Economic Daily News, which claims that Apple supply chain partner TPK is working on a project that relates to "naked eye 3D screen" - in other words, a 3D screen that doesn't require glasses to see. Having to pop on a pair of 3D specs every time you use the phone would be a buzzkill.
...or hologram cells
But 3D is very 2009, isn't it? We'd like to see Apple go a step beyond and really capture our imagination with a hologram display, able to project the screen image as a three-dimensional hologram you can view from different angles and even interact with. You might have to wait a while for this one.
At the moment about the best you can manage from a consumer smartphone is a 'holographic effect', based on eye-tracking technology. Not quite what we're looking for, but still fun:
On 17 May 2016, Apple filed a patent to have a bezel-free device. A bezel-free device would definitely turn a few heads.
An image render and concept by Marek Weidlich shows us what the iPhone might look like with no bezels. The conceptual idea looks great and would show that Apple is still innovating in the smartphone space.
Augmented reality and VR
Just as the Magic Bar (or, as it turned out to be called, the Touch Bar) quickly became the dominant rumour related to the 2016 MacBook Pro, augmented reality is an early contender for the 2017 iPhone refresh. Business Insider claims Apple is already working on a new augmented reality feature, and this followed a Facebook post in which Robert Scoble predicted that "really amazing VR/AR/mixed reality is coming [to iPhone]... and coming by the end of 2017. Apple's entrance into this new world is like when IBM came into the personal computing world. It is that important."
Scoble adds: "The clear iPhone will put holograms on top of the real world like Microsoft HoloLens does. You'll look through the glass in mixed reality modes (think of a new kind of Pokemon game) either in the headset, or in your hand."
This year marked the tenth anniversary of the iPhone's debut back in 2007, and some pundits expect Apple to mark the occasion with a truly spectacular update. And augmented reality could be exactly the flagship feature the company is looking for. But it's unlike Apple to dwell on the past; with a small number of exceptions (1997's Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, which we called "the most indulgent, over-engineered personal computer ever created", and the recent coffee-table book showcasing classic Apple designs), the company prefers to look ahead rather than focusing on its history.
If Apple has something this big planned for the iPhone 8/iPhone 7s this year, we'll soon start getting wind of it through supply-chain leaks. But if not, it's entirely possible that AR will have to wait until the year after - and the iPhone 9.
Concept illustration by Michael Shanks.
In May 2014, Apple was granted a patent for "Electronic devices with sidewall displays", which could lead to future iPhones with displays around the sides and edges as well as on the front. The patent suggests that the sidewall displays could be an extension of the main touchscreen, and they could have interactive or touch-sensitive portions.
Apple suggests that sidewall screen space could be used to display app icons, or for slide-to-unlock functionality, music player controls, messaging readout, caller ID, system controls and more.
Samsung has actually released the Galaxy Note Edge, which has a display that wraps around one edge of the smartphone. You can find out more about the Galaxy Note Edge here.
Touch ID display
Apple is understood to be exploring the possibility of integrating the Touch ID fingerprint scanner into the display of a smartphone or tablet. In fact, Apple filed a patent describing a Touch ID display back in January 2013.
This technology means that you could place your finger on the display to scan it, instead of the Home Button. We're not sure if this technology was an original variation to the Home Button scanner found on the iPhone 5S, or if it'll be combined with the Haptics & Tactile technology to remove the Home Button on a future iPhone and replace it with a virtual on-screen button.
The patent describes a touchscreen display with a fingerprint-sensing layer that could be used to introduce advanced multi-user support.
For example, Apple could use the fingerprint sensing display to only allow particular users to open certain apps. This could be useful for those with children who like to explore the iPad, for example.
Additionally, Apple could take the display even further. It could be used in conjunction with a piano app, for example, to teach users the correct finger placement for the instrument.
Accidental touchscreen inputs are so commonplace that we actually added the phrase 'Pocket dialling' to our tech jargon dictionary. Well, developments over the next few years could put a stop to that.
In May 2014, a patent titled "Configurable Buttons for Electronic Devices" described a touch-sensitive button designed to prevent accidental inputs. The patent covers a physical button that also has a touch sensor, which would know when a user's finger is touching it rather than another object in a bag.
The buttons highlighted in Apple's patent include the power, sleep, menu, volume and multipurpose buttons that are physical on most devices and therefore susceptible to accidental input.
Apple's Touch ID home button uses similar technology to the technology described in this patent, though it's also used as a security measure thanks to a fingerprint scanning authentication method.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Camera
The iPhone is one of the most widely used cameras in the world. What's in store for this vital element of the iPhone of the future?
In June 2016, Apple filed a patent to prevent people from recording at concerts through an infrared signal. This is to address the complaints made by artists of fans simply pulling out their phones to record a show or concert, rather than experiencing it first-hand.
The patent has been met with some critics; with some saying it invades their privacy. Others have seen it as a good move for artists and those who want a non-smartphone environment. This can also be used in an educational way, with an infrared signal used to give more details about a certain object, such as a plant.
It's still not clear how the technology will really be utilised, but it's clear that Apple is thinking about it.
Lucky iPhone owners of the future may get their hands on a feature currently offered only by premium video cameras.
In March 2015 Apple was granted a patent for a "digital camera with light splitter". Its project is to create a light splitter system (which for now exists only in high-end video camera) small enough to fit in an iPhone.
In essence, a light splitter system consists of a cube that splits received light into three colours: red, green and blue. The cube provides three image sensors, each of which receives one colour component. In recent iPhones, the camera system is such that its pixels capture the three component colours which end up occupying only a single image sensor; this means that they can fill only one third of the image sensor and colours are not as accurate as they could be.
The light splitter system would be a big coup for Apple. Its iPhone would be able to capture high-quality pictures with more precise colours, especially at night.
Apple seems to be keen to improve the camera capabilities of its iOS devices, and one patent published by USPTO in May 2014 suggests we could soon see iPhones that are able to capture "Super-resolution" photos thanks to optical image stabilisation, which is already a feature of the iPhone 6 Plus.
The patent describes a system that takes a series of photographs at slightly different angles and stitches them together to create a 'super resolution' photograph.
Apple doesn't suggest a device would capture every photo this way. Instead, the user would have the option to turn super-resolution mode on, much like HDR and Panorama modes.
Several rumours suggest that Apple plans to introduce a feature like this with an iPhone in the near future, with reports pointing to a 'DSLR-quality' capability that would represent the biggest camera jump in iPhone upgrade history.
Interchangeable camera lenses
Apple is also investigating the possibility of making interchangeable iPhone camera lenses.
In January 2014, the company was issued two patents that describe methods of attaching camera modules to devices such as the iPhone and iPad.
The first patent, titled "Back panel for a portable electronic device with different camera lens options", describes a portable electronic device that has a removable case that would allow camera attachments such as wide-angle or fisheye lenses.
The second patent, titled "Magnetic add-on lenses with alignment ridge," offers an alternative method of attaching new camera lenses to the iPhone using magnets.
It's already possible to use detachable iPhone camera lenses, of course, but at present those are exterior accessories made by third parties. You can read about our pick of the best iPhone camera lens accessories here: Best iPhone camera lenses.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Security & privacy
Apple has come out strongly in favour of user privacy, as was demonstrated in its recent tussle with the FBI in the US. But what technoloigcal developments can it offer to back this up?
An iPhone that can capture thieves' fingerprints
US patent 20160248769, a patent that Apple applied for in April 2016 and was published on 25 August of the same year, suggests that the company is considering the introduction of a security feature that would capture biometric data, such as fingerprints, audio, photos or video footage, from anyone who tries to steal your iPhone.
The patent, headed Biometric capture for unauthorised user identification, describes how a device "may determine to capture biometric information in response to the occurrence of one or more trigger conditions", these conditions potentially including "detection of potential unauthorised use". It goes on to specify that this will be achieved "without making said unauthorised user aware of said capture".
To assist in identifying and tracking down the thief, this data is ("in various implementations") transmitted to the company's servers.
It all sounds quite appealing - most of us have enjoyed the tale of a thief getting caught out when they take an unwitting selfie on a laptop's webcam or similar - but some might question whether hackers, advertisers or law enforcement might like to put this function to more sinister use, capturing our own biometric data and using it against us. In situations like this, Apple's strong track record of protecting its users privacy is a great reassurance; although the iCloud photo leaks were only a couple of years ago…
Face-detection and iris-recognition
In December 2014, USPTO awarded Apple a patent relating to a "personal computing device control using face detection and recognition".
Current iPhones and iPads can be unlocked using just your fingerprint, thanks to the Touch ID sensor. But with this patent, future iPhones and other devices could be unlocked using facial recognition: effectively, your face becomes your password.
More recently, DigiTimes has predicted - citing that old favourite, "industry sources" - that Apple is likely to launch iPhones equipped with iris-recognition technology in 2018.
This rumour was reiterated at the end of August when Digitimes reported that Taiwan-based Xintec is expected to provide iris scanners to Apple for the iPhone launching in 2017, and that this would help boost the company's revenues significantly.
Once this technology becomes widespread - and you should expect other firms to launch phones with the feature before Apple, with DigiTimes predicting that Samsung for one will get there in the second half of 2016 - you'll be able to unlock your iPhone by scanning your eye. Is that really more convenient than scanning a fingerprint, though? It's more excitingly futuristic, admittedly.
Attack detection mode
In March 2014, USPTO published an Apple patent filing that could be used to protect iPhone owners when they're in distress.
The patent, titled "Mobile emergency attack and failsafe detection", describes a feature that combines software and hardware to create an emergency services request system that's build in to a smartphone such as the iPhone.
Using the iPhone's sensors, the software could detect when the user is in an emergency situation such as a physical attack or car crash and automatically call for help. Users can set a predefined set of contact numbers, or use the iPhone's automatic service to call local 999 numbers. It can also make use of the GPS to detect the location of the user and call the contact that's closest.
To avoid an abundance of 999 calls being placed unnecessarily, the service has a number of modes and measures in place, such as audible warnings that a call is about to be made.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Pricing
While we imagine how the iPhone 9 could look, it's also worth speculating about its pricing model, which could be drastically different to the one we're used to. The smartphone market is booming, especially in the Western world, and as competition heats up, we imagine that smartphone providers and manufacturers alike will want to tempt customers with ever-more attractive deals. Could we even see the iPhone 9 being given away for free?
While this may sound ridiculous on the surface, there's method in the madness. Users are accustomed to seeing adverts throughout their mobile device - on websites, in apps, before (and sometimes during) online videos - could it get to a point where smartphone adverts appear on more intrusive places, such as the lock screen, in return for a partial or total discount on the phone itself?
While we're still some way off network providers giving away free smartphones in return for intrusive ads, it's not as unimaginable as some may think. Take Tesco, for example - Tesco has worked with an Australian company called Unlockd which developed the Tesco Mobile Xtras app. The idea of the app is to show pre-approved adverts as soon as you unlock your phone, and while this may seem annoying to some, if you view an ad a day for 21 days, you'll get £3 off your monthly bill. Yes, there's a difference between £3 a month and a free iPhone, but the potential is there.
iPhone 9 and beyond: Macworld poll - What do you want from your future iPhone?
It's your turn. Which of these ideas appeals to you, or are you looking for something else entirely? Have you say in our poll.