The regretful plateau of phone innovation

Photo by Tyler Meuter

Apple’s biggest release yet, iOS 10, is also the least impactful. To understand why, one must understand jailbreaking — hacking the iPhone.

There have been over 30 million jailbroken iDevices, so it was almost a necessity to do. The three reasons to jailbreak were to download “cracked” versions of paid apps, re-theme the UI, and, most importantly, have a half-decent user experience.

Remember when notifications hijacked the screen until you acknowledged them? Thank the MobileNotifier hack for inspiring iOS 5, where Notification Center and banner notifications were implemented. How about having to find Calculator in a numerical emergency or having to navigate Settings just to turn on Wifi? SBSettings was one of the most installed hacks, long before iOS 7 made it baseline with Control Center.

Consequently, it seems like the iOS team has only created two original, important, user-centric, purely software features since iOS was born: Siri in iOS 5 and the flat UI design of iOS 7. (Developer-oriented features, like the Metal API of iOS 8, as well as security fixes should not be discounted, but the average user honestly does not care about any of that.)

Siri herself was a company that Apple bought out, but I’ll still give them a point. Removing the skeuomorphic design of yore in favor of a flat UI honestly wasn’t that big of a deal, despite every tech outlet spawning four think-pieces about the decision.

That’s about it: a pre-existing company and a designer being allowed to have an opinion after Steve Jobs’ death. Every other major iOS feature used to be a legally contentious hack — if it wasn’t copied from a popular third-party app instead. Modern notifications, Control Center, Night Shift, Do Not Disturb, the Switcher’s card view, parallaxing app icons, custom notification vibrations, custom ringtones, battery percentage, third-party apps and even copy/paste used to be hacks to make iOS less bad.

There are some useful hacks that may never be implemented. Custom themes negate Apple’s branding. Filesystem access isn’t a great idea for the most popular, most secure device on Earth. Paid apps generate more revenue than illegal free versions.

As of iOS 7, there weren’t too many hacks left in Cydia (the App Store for jailbreakers) that Apple hadn’t already made a core part of the software. For that reason, jailbreaking stopped being necessary. The decrease in jailbreaking coincided with, if not caused, the lack of new user-oriented features in iOS 8, 9 and now 10.

Respectively, iOS 3 through 9 added basic functionality, multitasking and the unified inbox, modern notifications and Siri, Apple Maps and Facebook integration, a new design philosophy and clean UI, 4000 developer APIs and a new programming language, and a major spring cleaning and battery life improvements. (iOS 6 was bad, yes, but Apple Maps is more than worth the pixels its icon takes up now.)

That brings us back to iOS 10: fancier Messages, new UI, Siri can call an Uber, new sounds, the removal of the patented Slide to Unlock (RIP) and a neural net watching you type.

There cannot be a major release without adding or changing something fundamental — whether or not that something is user-facing. Novelty Messages is too unimportant, and enhanced autocorrect is too subtle. In order to have the “biggest release yet,” it also had to be the most fluffed — 1.1 gigabytes of Apple fiddling with the UI. Some of these changes are good; some are awful. Jony Ive changed the entire UI in iOS 7 as a new clean-design philosophy; iOS 10 changed the entire UI because it had nothing better to do.

Buzzfeed called this kind of thing “dude-fussing,” saying “these actions don’t have any real effect. But they are fussy and make a great show of effort at doing something to make it all better.” Apple changed everything to hide the fact that it changed almost nothing. Maybe there’s not much left to change.

The iPhone itself is seeing similar struggles. CPU will always be better two years into the future, but even Moore’s Law isn’t holding out anymore due to real-life physics. After the 64-bit iPhone 5S with the Secure Enclave, the only important thing that could feasibly change next was the iPhone’s size or the most-used peripheral port of all time. Once the 6 and 6+ ran the gamut for size, there was only one option left for the 7.

Removing the headphone jack wasn’t a decision made with “courage”; it was the only justification for releasing an entirely new phone in 2016. The only other choice was to not make a new iPhone, which may have been even more unacceptable of a decision. They haven’t released the 7’s sales numbers as they have done for every other iPhone in the past, suggesting the vernal SE was a good idea.

The only thing left to add to the iPhone is an organic LED (AMOLED) screen to improve battery life. This is something other popular phones already have, so Apple has to do it too.

Both iOS and the iPhone are nearly complete. It will be too soon for iOS 11 to change everything again come next year, and there’s nothing terribly important left to add. The iOS team is out of ideas, which is to say jailbreakers are out of ideas.

On the other hand, the iPhone team has one big “decision” left to celebrate the phone’s 10th birthday. At that point, modern cell phones will be virtually identical to each other.

In other words, the next iPhone or two will be a Samsung Galaxy that the FBI and your favorite headphones can’t get into anymore.