What's next for future iPhones?

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As impressive as the iPhone has been since its debut two years ago, the device has never been without its flaws. Apple’s regular updates to the software have polished some of these rough edges, while other needs were addressed when Apple opened the platform up to third-party developers in 2008. But much of what makes the iPhone such a revolutionary mobile device is more or less the same today as it was two years ago.

During that time, we’ve also seen increased competition from other players, such as Google’s Android platform and Palm’s webOS. While both platforms have some catching up to do, they’ve also introduced some original features along the way. And with software updates and new models of their own, they aren’t sitting still any more than Apple is.

Calling any of these devices an “iPhone killer” would be simplistic—not to mention silly. Still, Apple clearly can’t afford to rest on its laurels. With more competitors like the Motorola Droid appearing what seems like every week, somewhere in the sanctum sanctorum of Infinite Loop Apple is surely hard at work on the next version of the iPhone.

Of course, any major revision to the iPhone is certain to bring features cooked up by Apple’s engineers that we can't anticipate, but we tapped our own staff of experts to speculate on what kind of capabilities could help the iPhone maintain its pole position.

Hardware wars

To date, Apple has only rolled out major hardware changes to the iPhone once per year since the device's original release. But each version has brought significant improvements and, if Apple’s going to keep up with the Joneses, it should be looking in a few specific directions for its next model.

New screen The latest and greatest iPhone competitor is the Motorola Droid and most who have seen it agree that its 3.7-inch, 480-by-854 resolution screen puts the iPhone’s to shame. Of course, there’s nothing to stop Apple from incorporating a higher-definition display in the iPhone and, if the costs become competitive enough, we might even see a low-power OLED screen, such as the one in Microsoft’s Zune HD.

Better camera Apple took a big step forward with the iPhone 3GS’s camera, not only increasing it to 3 megapixels, but also adding a host of software features, such as auto-focus, macro mode, and improved low-light performance. Though not universally acclaimed as superior to the iPhone, the Droid does sport a 5-megapixel camera and also adds a few features the iPhone doesn’t have, such as image stabilization and—most important—an LED flash. Right now, the iPhone’s camera gets used because it’s the one most people have with them, not because it’s the best they own, but paying it some attention could make that built-in feature much less of a compromise.

Battery life The iPhone’s battery life is decent, until you start using the Wi-Fi, GPS, playing games—in other words, all the things people want to do with their phones these days. By all accounts, the average battery life of competitors isn’t really any better than the iPhone's, but one thing is clear in the smartphone market: people love using their devices, so the longer you let them actually use them, the better.

Software, etc.

Overall, the iPhone’s software has been its greatest asset in breaking into the smartphone market. And, as on the Mac, Apple is committed to continually rolling out new iPhone features via software updates. But as good as the iPhone OS is, there are certainly a number of places where it beats the competition, but falls short of the ideal.

Improved PIM functionality While they may not be PDAs, smartphones have essentially rendered that class of device obsolete. The iPhone lets you track your contacts, your appointments, and your e-mail, but all of those features could use improvements. Both Android 2.0 and the Palm Pre, for example, let you integrate contact information from other online services like Facebook. The iPhone’s calendar is particularly weak; most notably it still doesn't allow syncing To Do items with iCal. But Mail isn’t much better, lacking full-body search, a unified inbox option, and message flagging, among other features. Exchange support made the iPhone more appealing to corporate users, but giving some attention to their bread-and-butter functionality could win even more converts.

Wireless Syncing We’ve reached the end of the 2000s and—besides not having come up with a really good nickname for the decade—it seems ridiculous that we still have to plug a phone as connected as the iPhone into our computer with an actual cable. MobileMe subscribers and Exchange users can sync contacts and calendar information to their iPhones over-the-air, but even they still have to carry around a USB cable to transfer movies, music, and podcasts. Apple lets you download that content directly to the phone from the iTunes Store over Wi-Fi—why not let you grab them from your computer over the local network?

Multitasking and Notifications Yes, Apple finally rolled out support for push notifications, its answer to background processes, in iPhone 3.0. More and more, that fix seems like a stopgap along the lines of Web-based apps making a sufficient iPhone SDK. It seems inevitable that the iPhone will eventually allow multiple apps to run at the same time—at the very least, it’s important for apps that play audio and certain other classes of applications, such as instant messaging clients. That said, Apple also needs to improve the way it handles notifications, which currently lack permanence and have to be dealt with one at a time. Android’s pull-down status window and webOS’s subtle notification bar have both found more elegant ways of dealing with these messages while avoiding the potential for information overload.

At your service

No matter how good your cell phone’s hardware and software are, if you can't get good cell service, you might as well just buy an iPod touch. But presumably you bought the iPhone because you wanted a device that could connect to the Internet no matter where you go. Cell service is the iPhone’s biggest vulnerability—and its biggest opportunity for improvement.

Tethering If AT&T is to be believed, tethering—the ability to share your iPhone’s cellular data connection with your laptop—is still coming at some unspecified date. But this feature is key, especially for traveling business-types who sometimes need more functionality than even the smartest of smartphones allows. If nothing else, you don’t want to be typing a 20-page document or reading a lengthy small-print PDF on your iPhone when you've got your laptop handy.

Built-in turn-by-turn directions Google Maps has served iPhone users well over the last couple years, but once the iPhone 3G folded in GPS capability, it quickly became apparent that turn-by-turn directions were where it’s at. A number of vendors, including standalone GPS-maker TomTom, now offer apps that fill this need, but with the news that Google is adding its own free turn-by-turn directions application to Android phones, the bar has been raised. Whether or not third parties continue to offer better features, some sort of built-in turn-by-turn direction capability would seem to be a must for Apple to keep pace with its rivals.

Better service Poll a bunch of U.S. iPhone users, and it’s likely you’ll get more complaints about the quality of cell service—or lack thereof—than any other single topic. AT&T has taken a lot of heat for providing sub-par service: we've all suffered from dropped calls, bad reception, and general lack of 3G coverage at some point or another. But at the same time, it doesn’t seem as though there’s another alternative. Regardless of whether it takes a better AT&T network or opening the iPhone up to multiple carriers (when the technology allows it), better cell service should the number one priority for the iPhone. Given the state of the cell phone industry, an entrenched industry that moves at a pace only slightly faster than your average ice floe, it also may be the last development on this list that comes to pass.

The future soon

Will all, or indeed any, of these improvements make it into an iPhone in the future? It’s impossible to know what cards Apple is holding, but one thing is a good bet: that Apple will release a brand new iPhone sometime in the next year. And if our previous wish list of iPhone features is any indication, I’d expect several of these shortcomings to be addressed, and soon. And, of course, as always, expect Apple to throw in a few surprises.

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