To say Apple is under pressure to deliver something great at its Sept. 7 event for the iPhone 7 would be the understatement of the year. There are millions of iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 owners who want something worth upgrading to, and despite an embarrassing worldwide recall of the Galaxy Note 7, Apple finds itself playing catch-up with Samsung when it comes to design and camera quality.
With phone sales accounting for nearly two-thirds of the company's revenue, Apple can't afford for the iPhone to be a letdown. Last-minute leaks obtained by Forbes point to everything from new TrueTone displays on both the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus and upgraded ambient light sensors for improved low-light photos to two new black color options.
Apple is also expected to launch the Apple Watch 2, at a time when strong new competitors like the Samsung Gear S3 and Asus ZenWatch 3 are on the way. Here are five key questions Apple needs to answer, plus one more thing...
1. Can Apple make the missing headphone jack a positive?
Based on multiple reports, leaked photos and rumors, Apple is ditching the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. Instead, you'll plug into the Lightning connector, presumably in order to offer better audio quality and perhaps a slimmer design. It's a gamble that could pay off in the long run, but Apple will need to find a way to thwart the expected backlash.
"The 3.5mm headphone jack is ancient, and Apple could reasonably claim that using the Lightning port improves audio fidelity," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer platforms and devices at Current Analysis. "The fact that Apple owns Beats means it could offer a new line of premium headphones designed for the new iPhone on day one. And, of course, there will be Lighting-to-3.5mm headphone-jack adapters."
But that doesn't mean getting rid of the headphone jack is a smart move. "Dropping the 3.5mm jack is a bad idea," Greengart argued. "It would break compatibility with millions of existing headphones, including headphones specifically designed for the iPhone, and Apple's own Beats line."
On the other hand, Apple has faced criticism before for leaving legacy technologies behind, including the floppy drive on the iMac, the CD drive on the MacBook, and Flash support on mobile. The most important thing for Apple to communicate is that the company is not leaving customers to fend for themselves.
"It will only be controversial if there's no work-around, said Ramon Llamas, research manager for mobile and wearables at IDC. "You have millions upon millions of iPhone users that have Beats headphones. And if you can't plug those into the new iPhone, what do you do? There's got to be an adapter or a discount for new Beats headphones that connect wirelessly."
2. What will be the iPhone 7's must-upgrade feature?
For the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, the most noteworthy feature was the addition of a 3D Touch display, which enables all sorts of shortcuts and new ways to interact with apps and games. As the launch event window passed, however, the excitement around this new innovation seemed to wane, because a glut of apps taking advantage of 3D Touch never really materialized. Apple went back to mostly promoting the cameras on its phones.
For the iPhone 7, a possible dual-lens camera on the iPhone 7 Plus is getting a lot of buzz, as is a redesigned Home button for both models that's pressure-sensitive. Other reports point to a water-resistant or waterproof design, a faster A10 processor and 32GB of storage standard; a 256GB storage option is almost a lock.
But according to IDC's latest smartphone forecast, the smartphone market is growing just 1.6 percent year over year as more and more consumers are holding on to their phones longer. This lengthening upgrade cycle should worry Apple, but the company does have a knack for making its enhancements seem larger than life.
"One of the things Apple does really well is make its new products seem like you need them, that they're the latest and greatest, best things ever invented," Llamas said.
Even if Apple doesn't reinvent the wheel, there are plenty of folks coming off of two-year contracts or whose iPhones are on their last legs—especially those that may be suffering from flickering screens and "touch disease."
"It's hard for me to sit here and say, 'Man, this is the wrong direction they're taking. Faster processor, more memory. That's a huge blunder.' Of course it's not, for crying out loud," continued Llamas.
3. Can Apple catch Samsung in key areas?
That question may rub Apple loyalists the wrong way, but there's no denying that the Galaxy S7 and Note 7 are sexier than the current iPhone. They also offer better cameras, especially in low light. And while some users may not like the oversaturated colors, the Super AMOLED screens on Samsung's phones simply pop more and offer better viewing angles.
"There are several areas where Samsung is ahead of Apple—camera, waterproofing and wireless charging—that, if addressed, will be widely appreciated by Apple's installed base," Greengart said.
One thing consumers shouldn't expect is a new display on the iPhone, as Apple isn't expected to move to an OLED screen until next year.
4. Is there anything the leaks didn't cover?
Given the sheer volume of leaks and rumors, it seems like the public already knows everything about Apple's next phones. Can the company do anything at its iPhone 7 event that truly surprises?
"I hope so," said Greengart, "but Apple's supply chain is now so large that keeping everything a secret is harder than it used to be." However, Greengart also pointed out that the average consumer doesn't follow rumor sites, and isn't as jaded as your average tech analyst or journalist.
For iPhone fans, then, it's not really about a faster A10 processor, but what that improved CPU could enable. So Apple will need to demonstrate some truly killer apps, whether they be games or maybe even new augmented reality experiences, which Apple CEO Tim Cook has said is a priority for the company.
5. Is the Apple Watch 2 more than just an iPhone accessory?
Based on the reports thus far, the Apple Watch 2 won't be a huge departure from the original, adding GPS for tracking your runs and other health features, along with a bigger battery. The rumored water-resistant design sounds promising, though, as you'll probably be able to wear the watch in the shower.
What you likely won't see is a whole new look or built-in 4G LTE, which would free the Apple Watch from the iPhone.
"From a design perspective, the Apple Watch still looks like a shrunken-down smartphone," said Llamas. Can we have LTE connectivity in these things so your watch isn't a slave to your smartphone? Will Apple solve all these things? I don't think so."
Llamas said that, like a lot of other people, he's probably going to wait until the third generation before he can say the Apple Watch has arrived.
Greengart said he believes Apple has done just fine on the design and fashion front. The main issue for him is convincing consumers that they need a smartwatch when they already have a smartphone. "Apple needs to get developers to write small apps that can be invoked instantaneously that do useful things for consumers," said Greengart.
Oh, one more thing: Can Tim Cook surprise us?
Is there a surprise announcement up Tim Cook's sleeve? That has been missing from a lot of recent Apple events. Maybe Apple will give us a look at its new MacBook Pro, which will reportedly feature a new design and a new OLED touch panel for performing various shortcuts. Or maybe Apple will show off major upgrades to its Apple Car initiative, or a killer augmented reality app or maybe even an AR headset.
The iPhone 7 and Apple Watch 2 will probably still be successes even if Apple makes its event predictable. But if Tim Cook truly wants to step out of Steve Jobs' shadow, the current CEO has to show us something new that we didn't know we wanted.
A recent report essentially shot down the notion of a higher-end device, an iPhone 7 Pro, which would have had a Smart Connector for attaching various accessories, but Greengart said he isn't ruling it out.
"Apple has had success moving iPad average selling prices up with a Pro line, and Samsung is trying to do the same with its phones by stuffing in a [phone that's] chock-full of features at higher price points. It would not surprise me at all if Apple introduced an iPhone Pro."
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