Premium

As rivals launch increasingly innovative designs, can Apple’s iPhone 11 excite enough to halt declining sales?

An Apple iPhone with different gadgets attached
Increasingly, innovative mobile phone designs aren't coming from Apple – but rivals such as Samsung and Vivo

It’s a familiar scene of the smartphone era. Hundreds of technology reporters, bloggers, analysts and assorted hangers-on descend upon Apple to see the company unveil its new devices to the world.

As ever, the presentation by chief executive Tim Cook will be expertly rehearsed, the nerdy in-jokes delivered on cue. Only the voice of Sir Jony Ive will be missing, after Apple’s British design chief resigned in June.

The annual iPhone launch (this will be the thirteenth) is still one of the biggest events in the technology industry’s calendar. The products unveiled there – in addition to a refreshed iPhone line-up, a new Apple Watch is expected – will sell in their millions. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that the launches do not generate the excitement they once did.

In 2019, 12 years after Steve Jobs pulled the first iPhone out of his jeans, the smartphone market is fully saturated. Worldwide shipments have declined year-on-year for seven consecutive quarters, the longest run of falling sales on record, according to IHS Markit.

In China, the world’s biggest buyer of handsets, sales have fallen to their lowest level for six years.

This has affected Apple as much as any other phone maker. The company no longer reports how many iPhones it sells, but revenues from the device have declined this year.

Prices have increased, but upgrades are less noticeable: 2017’s iPhone X, which removed the iconic home button and introduced technology such as facial recognition, has been the only major redesign in recent years. Supply chain leaks and analyst reports suggest this year will be no different.

“Apple’s keynotes often generate irrational expectations for disruptive innovative products, but here I think it is way more realistic to expect incremental innovation,” says Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester. “2019 is definitely a transition year for Apple.”

The most significant upgrades to the new phone, expected to be called “iPhone 11”, are likely to be to its cameras. The more expensive models are due to move from two lenses on the back to three, a change that will allow for better low-light photos and wider-angle shots.

Apple is proud of saying the iPhone is the world’s most popular camera, and reviewers say its tech has fallen behind the likes of its Android rivals, so an upgrade is overdue.

Other improvements are likely to be under the hood – faster chips, better graphics and clearer screens. Welcome, but hardly the radical change that will drive reluctant consumers to part with their cash.

Increasingly, innovative designs are coming from elsewhere. Apple manufactures and sells its devices in such large quantities that it cannot afford to take big risks – especially ones that are unlikely to pay off – and others have more freedom to experiment.

This year’s most eye-catching development has been the rise of folding phones, handsets that are the size of a tablet when opened, but are pocket-friendly when shut.

In February, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Fold, the first foldable device from a major manufacturer. Huawei, the world’s second-biggest phone maker, swiftly followed with its own foldable.

“I am convinced that folding phones will be the start of an exciting new era for the industry,” Benjamin Braun, a Samsung executive, said last week.

A wave of Chinese manufacturers, who made their start simply by imitating Apple, have pushed boundaries in other ways.

Last year Vivo, a company little-known in Western markets, unveiled the first phone with a fingerprint scanner embedded in the screen (Apple is reportedly planning to introduce the technology in its own phones next year). The latest flagship device from Huawei boasts a 50x zoom, compared to 10x on the iPhone.

But today, many of these technologies are unreliable and expensive, and launches have not gone smoothly. Samsung was forced to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold in April, after reviewers found that they would break after just a few days of use (the company finally put it on sale in South Korea last week, with other countries to follow). Huawei’s counterpart has also been delayed.

Even when the phones make it to shelves, they are far more expensive than all but the earliest adopters are willing to pay, with the Galaxy Fold starting at £1,900 in the UK. It will take years before they are cost-effective and reliable.

“There’s still room for significant innovation within mobile,” says Gene Munster, a former Wall Street analyst who runs venture capital firm Loup Ventures. “But the foldable phone is a few years out.”

Munster says the biggest catalyst of smartphone sales in the coming months will be 5G, the new generation of network technology that promises ultrafast downloads and flawless connections.

Here too, Apple lags the competition. Samsung and Huawei’s top phones already come equipped with 5G, and the technology is set to gradually make it into cheaper handsets over the next couple of months.

The new iPhones unveiled on Tuesday will not boast 5G, the result of a years-long legal scrap between Apple and the US chipmaker Qualcomm which was not resolved until April, too late for Qualcomm’s chips to make it into the new phones.

Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight, says this is unlikely to matter in the US and UK, where 5G coverage is patchy and tends to harm battery life, but could hurt it in China, Japan and Korea, which are aggressively developing their 5G networks. “The brand insulates them in the West but they’re more vulnerable in the East. In China we’re seeing 5G ramp up very quickly.”

Blaber says Apple is protected by the “ecosystem” of accessories and software, such as AirPods headphones and the iMessage app, which rely on the iPhone and make it difficult to switch to a rival manufacturer.

That may be true, but it seems an oddly-defensive move for a company that has prided itself on pushing boundaries.

The tech industry has a long history of companies that have rested on their laurels, and it has rarely been a good strategy. This week, Cook will want to show that Apple can still surprise us.