Today’s iPhone launch, coming a full decade after the release of the original iPhone, will feature a device quite similar to Apple’s first ever smartphone. The newest iPhone, whose name has already leaked out as iPhone X, will be like the original in that it will be higher in price than most people are used to paying for phones, it will be constrained in availability due to the difficulty of its manufacture, and it will serve as a status symbol for its owners. Some will purchase it to signal their wealth, many will acquire it as a totem of their Apple fandom, and almost all will desire it simply by virtue of its limited availability and exclusivity.
When Apple launched the original iPhone, it was wildly different from the devices we called “phones.” In 2007, Nokias with T9 keypads were doing battle with BlackBerrys sporting full, three-dimensional QWERTY keyboards. Today, it’s no longer possible for any company to break so far from the norm — the mobile market moves too quickly, leaks are abundant, and phone designs are too mature for such revolutionary change — but Apple’s goal with the iPhone X is to indeed signal a new path for mobile devices. Sure, the Cupertino company will have the usual iterative updates to its lineup in the shape of iPhone 8 and 8 Plus models, but the X version will be the one that tells us where Apple wants to go.
The most immediate and obvious change will be in the obliteration of the bezels above and below the iPhone X’s screen. Together with the round home button, those bezels have come to define the iPhone (and even smartphones in general) in simplified graphics and emoji. Apple’s decision to do away with them seems only cosmetic, but it also moves the company away from the fingerprint authentication technology that the iPhone’s Touch ID helped to usher into the mainstream. Where the iPhone X is going, it won’t be needing either a home button or a fingerprint sensor, and the rumors ahead of its launch indicate that Apple will move to less proven forms of biometric ID like facial recognition.
A good way to think of the iPhone X is as a sort of technology preview. Reading through all the leaks and off-the-record Apple reports, a picture emerges of the iPhone X as a radical redesign that strains at the edges of what can be done with current tech. It’s a break from Apple’s traditionally circumspect approach in one key way: the company is relying solely on Samsung to provide the requisite OLED displays, whereas it usually favors a diverse pool of component providers to minimize risk. Maybe for Apple internally, the iPhone X means as much “experimentation” as anything else. The company can’t afford to take many chances with the hundreds of millions of iPhones it sells every year, but a limited-edition model can serve as the proving ground for new technologies.
Much in the same way that the flagship smartphone of today turns into the mid-range device of tomorrow, so too the best elements of Apple’s cutting-edge, limited-edition, super-flagship of 2017 are likely to wind up in the regular iPhone of 2018.
With pricing anticipated somewhere around and above $1,000, Apple is set to position the iPhone X as a whole new class of device. This isn’t an unfamiliar tactic for the company, which in prior times introduced the Retina MacBook Pro at retina-searing prices just for those who really wanted — and could afford — to buy one. Gradually, the Retina MBP took over and became the only MBP option available, but its start was simply as an indulgence for people eager and wealthy enough to be super early adopters. That’s the play with the iPhone X as well, except the iPhone’s influence, recognizability, and social significance are all vastly greater than those of a MacBook laptop.
For regular consumers, the iPhone X will be defined simply by its exclusivity. As with the original iPhone, merely obtaining one will be a feat in and of itself. Beyond being limited in number and difficult to afford, the iPhone X retail units might not even arrive particularly soon, as multiple pre-launch reports have suggested an extended delay after the official announcement.
Odds are that the struggle to get an iPhone X will just feed into the desire for it — much as you might see with rare, limited-edition mechanical watches or special edition sports cars. Apple has spent the past few years cozying up to luxury brands like Hermès, and now it seems to be borrowing a trick from their playbook while serving its own technical goals. By releasing what is essentially the 2018 iPhone in a very early and very limited edition, the Cupertino company is getting the benefits of both experimentation and exclusivity.