The future of iPhone: how Apple's handset could evolve

We take a look at how new and future tech developments will influence the next iPhone

2020 - iPhone 9

iPhone 9

1. 5G

Yes, 4G's only just rolling out now, but then it took less than 10 years for the world to decide that 3G wasn't enough, and that 4G was absolutely, positively necessary. However, 5G won't be what you think. The 4G spec gives it an awful lot of headroom for growth - the initial speeds of a 50Mbps peak in practice and 100Mbps in theory will seem positively antiquated by later versions of the technology.

Eventually, 4G LTE revisions could reach download speeds of up to 1Gbps. With that sort of bandwidth available, it just isn't necessary for 5G networks to be a big speed bump, like the moves from 2G to 3G, or 3G to 4G were. Instead 5G is intended to focus on improving the mobile internet experience in other ways.

When 4G LTE handsets launched, they pretty much gave up on the idea of power efficiency in favour of high speeds. That's improving, and has already come on a long way in the iPhone 5, but getting the power usage as low as possible would be a focus for 5G development.

Reducing the likelihood of outages, improving speeds in areas with less coverage, increasing capacity for having high numbers of simultaneous users (so you won't get network problems at big events, or at time like New Year's Eve) - basically, the current 5G research is looking at making the speeds of 4G as reliable and ubiquitous as possible.

2. Liquidmetal casing

Apple has used various materials in its quest to build the perfect iPhone casing, from aluminium in the original, to plastic in the 3G/3GS, to glass in the 4/4S, and aluminium (again) in the iPhone 5. They've all suffered from practical flaws, even if they've all been improvements on each other.

The aluminium back of the iPhone 5, for example, needs to have small glass sections for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas, because the metal would otherwise block them. But Apple has exclusive rights to a technology called Liquidmetal, which could solve many of the problems with case construction.

For a start, it can be made in thin, complicated shapes easily while still providing strength; so as Apple keeps trimming millimetres off the iPhone, Liquidmetal offers a more flexible way to make the casing. It's also highly scratch-resistant and durable, helping to keep your iPhone in pristine condition even after a few years of brushing against your keys.

And, perhaps most usefully, it can actually be used as the material for the iPhone's antennas, meaning they can be integrated into the casing even more efficiently than they are now. And it's even possible to finish Liquidmetal in different ways - it can be used to make shining metal casing, textured metal and more.

One of Liquidmetal's inventors estimates that, in 2012, Apple is at least five years and several hundred million dollars away from being able to use Liquidmetal at this scale, but in the future it could offer exactly the kind of thin, strong casing needed.

3. The future of Gorilla Glass

It's something of an open secret that Corning's Gorilla Glass is what keeps the front of the iPhone scratch-free. This treated glass is extremely resistant to small amounts of damage (it can still be shattered, mind), and the latest version of the technology reduces the thickness of the glass by around 20%, while being stronger than ever. Corning told us that it would continue looking to make its glass thinner while maintaining strength.

The issue with going much thinner than it's made currently (0.5mm thick) is that the glass inevitably becomes more flexible as it gets thinner, and if it becomes too much so, it could bend and damage the screen underneath it if you applied too much pressure (by, for example, sitting on it).

However, Corning still believes it can reduce the thickness of its glass down to around 0.3mm, and it will still be as tough. Corning also make substrate glass, which is the glass that the actual screens are built with, as opposed to the cover glass, which protects the screen. Corning's latest technology aims to produce substrates that are just 0.05mm thick, which is possible because they don't need to be tough like the cover glass - the composition can be different.

Beyond that, Corning is looking into adding anti-smudge/fingerprint technology when it produces the glass, as well as coating to self-heal scratches and reduce glare to zero with impacting on screen quality.

4. A more touching experience

Just before the launch of the iPad 3, there were rumours going around that Apple would include technology from a company called Senseg in its touchscreens that allowed for haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is essentially touch feedback, and it takes many forms.

Some smartphones vibrate every time you hit a button or key on the touchscreen, in an attempt to replicate what you feel when you press a physical button. Senseg's technology is considerably more advanced, though. It uses electrical fields to actually recreate physical feeling on the touchscreen. So, if you were to run your finger along a row of keys on a keyboard, each one would actually feel as if it were physically there to your finger, even though the flat glass isn't changing at all.

It can be used to replicate different textures, and to let you 'feel' objects on screen as you move them - one of Senseg's demos involved pushing a ball on-screen.

How would this be used in iOS? While we doubt Apple would go to the trouble of offering you to feel the 'leather' in the Calendar app, you would be able to feel the switches in Settings move as you turn them off, feel the keyboard keys as you type, and it could provide a way for Braille readers to use the iPhone and iPad without any accessories needed. Developers might find it a lot of work to integrate - we're not sure how many of them will want to effectively design a physical product as well as a virtual one.

5. Your iPhone becomes your computer

In the future, the idea of buying a Windows PC or a Mac might become a totally archaic thought. Though the processing power of the iPhone in a decade's time might well surpass the power of what's in the latest laptops now, we're actually not suggesting that your iPhone will simply plug into a screen to form the guts of a computer (though this is entirely possible).

We're talking about virtualisation through the cloud. The technology already exists in 2012, being put to use in OnLive's cloud gaming service and OnLive Desktop offering. OnLive Desktop basically switches your home Windows PC for one that's in the cloud - running on a server owned by someone else. You move a mouse and type on a keyboard, those commands are sent to the server over the internet, and the video stream of the actions is sent back to your screen.

With faster internet speeds available, you'd barely be able to notice any difference to using a PC under your desk. Apple has already taken the unexpected move of making OS X available for home virtualisation, so perhaps iCloud will house the operating system in the future. In fact, iCloud might well become the operating system - you could simply run virtualised versions of applications, with no need for an OS to contain them. And the iPhone would be more than powerful enough to power this, and stream the video to a larger screen over AirPlay.

6. Siri is perfected

By this time, Siri will have had years to learn people's speech patterns, dialects and accents. It will be able to manage just about any online task for people all over the world. It will also be able to help reach all parts of your phone, and apps will be tied into it, allowing what it can do to be expanded almost infinitely.

The important thing is that it will never make mistakes, and could even start to advise you on tone. If you dictate and email or text with an angry tone, it might suggest calming down and recomposing. If you sound happy, it could append a smiley face. Apple might even move the speech recognition from the cloud to your phone.

This might seem backwards compared to the way everything else is going, but it has distinct advantages, and it's only in the future that the iPhone would have the computing power to correctly analyse speech. It means that if your internet connection goes down, you won't lose Siri's ability to perform actions on your iPhone (even if it can't do anything in the cloud), and it would make responses as fast as possible.

7. Local storage becomes obsolete

Though there will no doubt be lots of advances in storage capacity over time, it's likely to become less and less necessary. Ubiquitous fast internet speeds will make music streaming an equivalent to storing it on your device, except that you'll have access to a library larger than you could ever hope to store yourself.

Movies and TV shows won't need to be downloaded either - you'll be able to get instant 3D 4K (the heir apparent to 1080p HD) streams anywhere. On-demand content is likely to almost completely replace watching channels live, except in the case of special events. Physical media will just seem like a waste of space.

Similarly, any documents you work on will just be saved to the cloud. This is already happening, but it will simply become the norm for everything in the future. Photos will be uploaded as they're taken, stored online for you to review from any device.

Security shouldn't be a concern in the cloud - Siri could allow to even voice-authenticate access in a pinch - and backing up wouldn't be a problem, either. Even now, Dropbox saves previous versions of your documents, so they can't be lost or accidentally overwritten. We'd expect iCloud to offer the same options, just like Apple's OS X does on the Mac.

2050 - iPhone 24

iPhone 24

1. Rollable displays

The flat, solid displays that we're used to at the moment have come on hugely in the last few years, but they put a limit on the portability of devices - their size inevitably dictates the size of the device. Flexible, rollable displays give us more options in this area. It's possible, for example, to have an iPhone where the whole screen can disappear into another area, perhaps one the size of the bottom area of the current iPhone, where the Home button sits.

It would make it incredibly small to carry around, and when you want to use it, you just pop out the screen. There's a material in development called nanocrystalline cellulose, which is transparent, incredibly strong for its weight, flexible and conducts electricity.

This means that not only can it survive the rigours of being rolled in and out all day, but it can also power a display of OLED pixels on its surface. We've already seen that OLEDs require no backlight, and so can be a part of displays that are only a fraction of a millimetre thick. In addition, nanocrystalline cellulose will also be very cheap to make, because it's derived from wood pulp.

2. See-through screen

With phones and other devices likely to only continue flooding us with information, context is vitally important. There's no better context than being able to see information applied directly to what it's describing, which is why augmented reality is incredibly useful. There are already some AR apps around in the App Store, such as map apps that point you in the direction of restaurants when you hold your phone up to point the camera around at eye height.

But it can be much more than that. Imagine a phone with a clear screen, that could overlay information about whatever's behind it. Hold it over a gadget and it would bring up specifications and purchase options. Hold it in front of a person and it overlays social network updates. It's much more seamless than what's available now, and interactive - there's no waiting for the camera to focus on the one thing that app's designed to analyse - you just hold the phone up and it fills with information, identifying what's behind it.

Our old friends OLED and nanocrystalline cellulose crop up again, here. Samsung has already shown off a transparent display based on OLED technology, so the technology is eminently achievable, but having a durable, flexible material to use will be hugely important. Like we said, nanocrystalline cellulose is actually transparent, on top of its many other virtues, so it ideal for this sort of application.

3. It's all in the eyes

Google's Glasses device is essentially a pair of glasses that records everything that happens, and displays information on the lenses, in front of your eyes. At the moment, they're inelegant headsets with a bulky battery, but some of the technology we've seen here could make them much more appealing - essentially, they could work in a pair of contact lenses instead of glasses.

With a low-enough energy draw, they could be powered by the heat of your eye, using graphene technology. They could record on tiny camera optics, and transmit what they see wirelessly to your iPhone, using carbon nanotube antennae that are microscopic in size. OLED pixels on them could display augmented reality information - the US military is already working on technology that lets you focus on things that are close up and far away at the same time, so the information would still be clear, even as you're looking at something in the distance.

The hub for all this would be your phone, receiving imagery from the contacts, and sending information to them. The iPhone itself can also use your eyes in more innovative ways, tracking where you're looking to adjust options, or even letting you control it with just your eyes. You could type, for example, simply by looking at the letters you want on the keyboard.

4. Eternal power

Better charging solutions are all very well, but in the future, wouldn't it be better if you never had to make a point of charging your iPhone at all? Advances in battery technology could allow for an iPhone that essentially powers itself. A battery that uses graphene (the same material that carbon nanotubes are made from) has been proposed and experimented with that uses thermal energy to generate electricity - that is, it's powered by heat.

So by placing the battery next to the warm computer components it's powering, it can get some energy back. Now, we're not suggesting that the laws of physics will have changed in a few decades and this will generate perpetual energy - the battery will also need energy from elsewhere to stay topped up. But that could be just about anything: your body heat when it's in your pocket; heat from your hand when you hold it; solar thermal heat.

All these things would just provide power passively, without you ever needing to think about intentionally charging it, and the power consumption of the parts in the future will be so small compared to today that it might be able to always run without any intentional power input.

5. Siri becomes truly intelligent

Though Siri is cleverly designed to be occasionally witty and appear smart in its knowledge, it's still really quite constrained. Push it past its pre-loaded instruction sets and you're likely to receive plaintive apology and an offer of a web search. And though Siri can 'learn' at the moment, it's just learning certain new connections about you, all still within the constraints of what it can do.

As much more processing power becomes available to Apple, we could see Siri advance into some much smarter - something with true intelligence. IBM is already looking at ways to bring its Watson intelligent supercomputer (which was able to beat human contestants at the gameshow Jeopardy) to smartphones, but we're talking about creations even beyond that.

Future versions of these AIs could learn the things you like in a passive and genuinely constructive way, being able to recommend some things and discard others based on what it knows about you. If you ask it something it doesn't know, it could perform research online in just a matter of moments, reading and collating information and giving you what you need to know.

We're not suggesting it needs to go as far as having distinct personality and pulling us into a Blade Runner situation, but there's a lot of scope for Siri to learn and know things more naturally, instead of within our confines.

6. The Tricorder

While the iPad made us think of the tablet computers they use in later series of Star Trek, it might well be that future versions of the iPhone make us think of the Tricorder, the general-purpose scanning and analysis device carried by the crew of the Enterprise.

NASA has been looking into devices that can easily monitor the health of astronauts in space, and diagnose any problems that arise, while the X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million if a team can create a device that can diagnose illnesses. There are various technologies that will help to bring these forwards, such as graphene-based DNA analysers.

It's not just medical applications, though. By combining an array of sensors, from pressure sensors to ultrasonic distance detectors to spectroscopy, the iPhone could receive a huge amount of information about the world. It could be its own on-board weather station, warning you of impending rain; it could identify if there are dangerous gases nearby; it could even help you find flaws with buildings. Want to know if certain water is safe to drink? Just point your iPhone at it.

Electronics will become so small that it should be possible to fit in dozens of sensors, ensuring that you'll know as much as possible about the world around you.

7. More advance build materials

When looking for a way to make devices as thin and light as possible, manufacturers will have to go beyond the traditional materials we're using now. Even the likes of Liquidmetal might not offer the strength and flexibility necessary. Nanostructures might become necessary for building materials strong enough and light enough for future devices.

The most prevalent of these is carbon nanotubes, which are formed taking a sheet of carbon that's one atom thick, known as graphene, and forming it into a tube. Carbon nanotubes have proven to be something of a wonder material - they're among the strongest and stiffest materials ever discovered, and could be even harder than diamonds.

There are all sorts of proposed uses for them, including stopping bullets (better than kevlar would), as a way to build an elevator into space (really), and for the construction of future iPhones? Considering how versatile they are, it might come as no surprise if we tell you that carbon nanotubes even make a good antenna, but at a tiny fraction of the weight of a regular antenna (one ten-thousandth the weight of a copper one, for example).

So, like the materials used in the iPhone today, carbon nanotubes could combine being a case and antenna for a future iPhone, while being almost impossibly light and small.

Generation i

In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone as the first successful Multi-Touch device. The iPad followed three years later, and the two have come to represent as big a change in computing as the graphical user interface was 30 years beforehand. In both cases, the way of interacting was criticised by those used to the old method.

Productivity is the word most often trotted out, with claims that a graphical interface didn't give you the power of the command line abounding in 1984, and claims that a touchscreen doesn't give you the precision of a mouse pointer. The problem with these claims is that they so often confuse familiarity with necessity, and a lack of imagination with advancement.

The graphical interface has provided the kinds of productivity tools that couldn't have been dreamed of in a command line world, and a future dominated by touch gives us another opportunity to rethink how we create software, and what the best way to create things or just have fun and connect with the world is. If this sounds far-fetched to you, just look at households with both children and iPads.

Kids that are far too young to comprehend the metaphor of mouse-based interfaces – controlling a pointer that represents your hand - can instantly pick up the far more literal interaction of the iPad, where your hand is your hand. Things move how they expect to move when they drag them. Buttons react like real buttons.

It's only adults who find touch controls to be inadequate compared to the mouse and keyboard, in many cases because they can't yet get software for iOS that matches the desktop equivalent. It's a totally legitimate complaint, but it's one that's based on immediacy - you can't replace your PC with an iPad for all tasks now.

But the software will improve. By the time kids have developed the finger dexterity and comprehension necessary to use a mouse, why would they want to? Games are available on the iPad. The iPad is a more immediate research tool than a computer - it's usually to hand wherever you want to find something out, rather than tucked away in another room.

Basic word processing will have better controls in iOS in the future than it does now. The likes of Brushes offer a more natural canvas for doodling than Microsoft Paint ever did, while being easier to use. Children will start using computers regularly without needing to use a mouse, so when they do need to use more complex software, the interface will change with them.

In most cases, the tools are already on iOS, they're just not as comprehensive as their more mature desktop counterparts at the moment. But touchscreens, voice interaction and gesture controls offer a wide scope to make our software work for us, in the ways humans like to work, instead of us having to conform to computer guidelines.

As that changes, and natural interfaces develop into something as comprehensive as mouse-based interfaces, there'll still be no compelling reason to start using a mouse (except for a few fringe cases, perhaps). Advanced image editing, computer programming, design, spreadsheet and database management… these are all possible on the iPad now, and we are already witnessing them get better and more comprehensive over time.

And it's not just the mouse. Children used to the iPhone tend to try to swipe through photos on a digital camera, or expect television to be an interactive choice, instead of a linear experience. The death of the old ways of interacting won't come from some overnight decision that new interfaces are now good enough for the world to use for everything, but from obsolescence over time.

The disconnection between our hands and the action we're performing will seem needless and archaic to the generation about to start using computers. Right now, the iPad might be something you use in addition to a desktop PC, but we might be the last generation for whom that's true. Our children might never use a mouse at all.