How are you still alive, my old-ass baby?

Sat Jun 19, 2021

The iPhone 6S refuses to die.

With confirmation at WWDC that it will be receiving iOS 15, the 6S has officially become the longest-supported smartphone of all time. With an incredible seven years of guaranteed software support, this gracefully-aging phone has just been conferred the title of Living Legend.

I was fully expecting my 6S to be killed off this year. I was even making succession plans. But instead, Apple granted my phone another year of reprieve. I’m pretty happy about it, and so is the Internet - here are some Twitter reactions:

If you follow the latest tech media, podcasts, and YouTube videos, you probably think that everybody has an iPhone 12 and only technophobes, or the cash-poor, or kids on hand-me-downs, use an iPhone 6S as a daily driver. Allow me to disabuse you of that notion.

According to statistics on the most popular iOS devices currently used in North America, there are far more people using an iPhone 6S than an iPhone 12. Surprised? You shouldn’t be - most normal people are somewhat financially responsible, it turns out.

Okay, so the 6S is the new longevity champ, and I ain’t complaining. But how exactly did the 6S seize the crown?

To answer that question, we’ll have to dig a bit deeper into this year’s WWDC.

As always, go to your favourite tech site to read an itemized list of all the WWDC updates. As you do that, you will inevitably come across all the sullen editorials complaining about how boring this year’s WWDC was.

However, labelling a developer’s conference as “boring” is akin to labelling a dentist’s conference as “only interested in teeth”. But hey, this is the Internet. If you’re smart, you can safely skip the cop-out “analysis” of some green Gen-Z college graduate with an English degree and find real journalism elsewhere.

If you take a little time to analyze the new tentpole features announced at dub dub, you’ll almost certainly see the pattern and recognize the context.

When the freight train of COVID-19 hit hard last year, everybody started working from home. Unfortunately for Apple, with it’s insular work culture and emphasis on face-to-face, inter-departmental collaboration - productivity took a major hit.

I’m not implying that Apple’s software engineers were kicking back this whole time, playing video games slack-mouthed, covered in Cheetos dust. I’m saying they were blindsided without the right productivity tools. And they weren’t going to download Office 365 anytime soon.

So, at the height of the pandemic, they started creating those tools. And this was what we got at WWDC as a result:

  • Big improvements to FaceTime: screen sharing, spatial audio, voice isolation, wide spectrum, grid view, portrait mode… and FaceTime links that work in any browser on any OS. Android friends can now join the chat! Also, a fun new feature called SharePlay that lets you watch movies, listen to music, etc. with your friends in perfect sync.
  • Media and links in Messages will now be saved in a “Shared with You” section in the relevant app. Nice. You can also enable a “Focus” mode (when you are busy at work, for example) that sets a status notification in Messages.
  • Assorted productivity boosters: Rich results for contacts, conversation boost on AirPods, better multitasking on iPad, Quick Notes, system-wide translation, and Shortcuts on the Mac. Apple is also playing catch-up with Google by implementing full OCR across all photos (Live Text).
  • Universal Control: The ultimate ecosystem flex and by far the most-impressive demo in the WWDC keynote video. Using one mouse, Craig Federighi seamlessly dragged a file from his iPad, over onto his MacBook, then over onto his iMac and dropped it into a presentation.

There were some other scattered improvements to Photos, Maps, Weather, iCloud, and Safari, but the overall productivity-at-home theme was clearly the focus this year.

However, we are now starting to exit the pandemic. Work-at-home tools that would have been welcome a year ago now seem stale and passé. It’s no wonder that impatient pundits and Apple fans felt somewhat deflated at WWDC this year - unfortunately, the sum of 2020’s distracted efforts were never going to blow minds.

The logical answer, then, to the question of how the 6S made the cut this year is that iOS 15 wasn’t technically innovative enough to require beefier hardware specs. Such a weak update should have no problem running on a six-year old phone, right?

And yet, this answer doesn’t encapsulate the full story.

A closer look at the new features on iOS 15 reveals that many of them are actually not supported on the 6S. In particular, any feature that offloads processing power from the cloud onto the device itself simply won’t work on older hardware. For example, machine-learning features such as Live Text, offline Siri support, and AR walking directions all require an iPhone XS or newer (although, I am puzzled as to why even an iPhone X can’t handle weather animations).

Another odd development is that Apple will allow users to stay on iOS 14 after iOS 15 is released and continue to receive security updates. Coupled with a crippled iOS 15 and continuing support for iOS 14, Apple’s software strategy here is somewhat baffling.

Perhaps Apple really took offense to the “planned obsolescence” narrative that was floating around a few years ago and is making real efforts to extend the life of their products.

It seems trite to say that the 6S is still alive because Apple is committed to making high-quality hardware that lasts a long time, or that they are concerned about all the e-waste generated with rapid phone upgrade cycles. But perhaps it is partly true.

The other half of the truth is that 2020 was a write-off for everyone - including Apple. Away from the intense workaholic energy of Apple Park, engineers had work-life balance thrust upon them whether they wanted it or not. So, Apple can certainly be forgiven for squeezing out some iterative software updates this year instead of cooking up a major paradigm shift.

It looks like hardware development on the next iPhones is following a similar pattern, with the “iPhone 13” looking more like an “iPhone 12S”. We haven’t had an “S” year (i.e. refreshed internals rather than a major chassis design change) since 2018 with the iPhone XS. Given that “S” years aren’t very exciting, I’m especially glad I can hang onto my 6S until the iPhone 14 comes out and make a decision then. Yes, the camera on my 6S is sweltering garbage compared to the latest flagships, but maybe taking less pictures is a good thing now that I have to pay for my own photo storage (Adieu Google Photos).

Notch Watch

If you’re looking for the latest report on the unlikely demise of the interminable notch, you’ve come to the right place.

Based on multiple rumours, it looks like the “iPhone 13” will indeed have a smaller notch. Contrary to an earlier rumour, it will be slightly less wide, not less tall. It will be, unfortunately, still offensive - perhaps even more so. Somebody said - I forget who, but I agree with them - that a small-notch design looks like an ugly old Android phone. A few Android phones copied the notch at first but quickly moved onto hole-punch designs.

If you believe my man Ming-Chi Kuo (who has a good track record, but his timeline can be off), Apple may even adopt the hole-punch design in the 2022 iPhones. He also prophesized, and this is the most tantalizing rumour of all, that the notch will finally disappear in 2023.

I refuse to italicize that “finally” until it actually happens.

I can’t say that I truly believe it will happen - rumours about an all-screen iPhone pop up every year. And every year I lose a little more hope when it never materializes. But I will continue to hang on to the dream I had when the iPhone X first came out:

…the reality is that the notch is also a design compromise. A compromise that will disappear as soon as it is technically feasible. And trust me when I say that nobody will mourn its absence even if it was once posited as the new defining shape of the iPhone.

…The iPhone X is a premium, beautifully machined device. But without the camera bump and the notch, it will become nothing less than the pinnacle of smartphone design.

That is the phone that I’m going to get.

I said that four years ago, and the only thing that has changed is that I’ve given up caring about the camera bump. The camera arms race in flagships causes the bump to get bigger every year. But if we get an amazeballs camera upgrade like a periscope zoom lens, then I definitely won’t be mad. Everyone just slaps a case on their phone anyway (unless you’re insanely careless or insanely wealthy).

The haunting phrase “That is the phone I’m going to get” is a good reminder from my past self not to settle.

However, I am starting to think that by the time the notch is gone I won’t even care anymore because we’ll have a folding iPhone or AR glasses or some other future-facing technology that eclipses the iPhone entirely, notch or no notch.

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