Apple to add polish, not product lines, in 2016

The tech giant likely will update its current gear, but don't hold your breath for a car.

Apple's iPhone 6S now has an optional battery case, but the hope is that next year's iPhone 7 will offer better battery life on its own.

CNET

Apple spent 2015 catapulting new toys and services at consumers. The year ahead will be all about refining its aim.

The Cupertino, California, company wants to touch every aspect of your life, whether on the go with an iPhone 6S or Apple Watch, at your office with an iPad Pro or MacBook, or in your living room with an Apple TV. These devices increasingly work together as a team designed to keep you locked into Apple's universe.

In 2016, you won't see nearly as many new products. Instead, look for Apple to bolster its lineup with subtle improvements. The exception, of course, is the iPhone, which will get an overhaul next year if Apple sticks to its nearly decade-old pattern.

Here are some changes we could see in the new year.

A radical new iPhone?

With the arrival of the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus in September, we just witnessed the every-other-year "S" cycle, which brings modest internal changes to Apple's smartphones. That means 2016 should mark the introduction of a redesigned iPhone.

The most-wanted element remains longer battery life, which could arrive with what's expected to be called the iPhone 7. The iPhone 6S didn't offer a big boost in battery life over the iPhone 6, though Apple's new Smart Battery Case is a bulky way to address that issue.

Another possibility for the iPhone 7 could be the removal of the home button, which would let Apple pack a bigger display into a smaller package.

The new iPhone should be thinner and lighter. Also in the rumor mill is a Lightning connector that serves as the universal port for the power cord and headphone jack. The phone may also be waterproof, something that's been featured in rival devices like Samsung's Galaxy S5.

Reports suggest a redesigned 4-inch iPhone to please the people who rebelled against the 4.7-inch iPhone 6S and 5.5-inch iPhone 6S Plus.

"It would make sense to replace the aging 5S and would make the device lineup cleaner," Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster said.

The question is, how many people now want a smaller iPhone? The bigger models have garnered blockbuster sales.

Winding up the Apple Watch

Apple's first wearable product, the Apple Watch, launched in April at prices ranging between $349 and $17,000. While the company hasn't said how many it's sold, market researcher IDC pegs it as the No. 2 player behind Fitbit.

That's not saying much considering many people are on the fence or just unaware of smartwatches. For now, Apple is the proverbial big fish in the little pond.

In the fall, Apple updated its Apple Watch software to let apps run on the watch itself instead of working as iPhone extensions. Apple will push developers in 2016 to build better, more useful apps for the wearable.

Next year, Apple will also likely introduce its second-generation watch. Many are hoping for better battery life and more functionality when it's not connected to an iPhone. The current Apple Watch isn't particularly handy when away from a phone. There also could be some design tweaks, the ability to track sleep, and smart straps that include extra sensors for tracking fitness or improving battery life.

Cook hinted in an interview last month that Apple could build "something adjacent to the watch" that's more medically focused and that requires US Food and Drug Administration approval. That could be an app, he said, or "something else."

More software and services

Will 2016 finally be the year of the long-awaited Apple TV service? Probably not.

Remember all the prognostications that 2015 would be the year Apple introduced the ability to watch TV over the Internet through its set-top box and mobile devices? CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves in early December said Apple had put plans for the service on hold. [Disclosure: CBS is CNET's parent company.]

Instead, the company updated its Apple TV hardware for the first time in three years and created software that lets developers make apps for the streaming media box, something that will likely expand in 2016.

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So what's the holdup with an actual live TV service? The media companies that own the rights to the content Apple wants to stream are in no rush to make deals and can hold out for better terms.

That doesn't mean Apple won't do anything with its various software and services. Updates to iOS, its mobile software, and to Mac OS X, its Macintosh computer software, are givens. We could also see an expansion of the Apple Pay mobile-payments service in 2016 and improvements to the News app and Apple Music. The company could also make a bigger push with HomeKit, its smart-home software.

Everything else

After taking a year off from updating the iPad Air 2 and instead focusing on the jumbo-sized iPad Pro, Apple could return its focus to its marquee tablet. However, it will have to do more than just shave off a few millimeters to impress consumers who are growing weary of tablets.

Updates to Apple's Mac line are also expected. The company introduced its thin and light MacBook in 2015, but didn't make any major changes in its other laptops. The MacBook Air, previously Apple's slimmest computer, lacks a high-resolution Retina display and hasn't had any big alterations in years.

Then there's the Mac Pro. Apple's powerful, high-end computer hit the market in 2013 and hasn't been updated since. Look for some changes in 2016, such as more powerful components.

Apple, of course, could have some surprises in store. It hasn't yet done anything in augmented reality or virtual reality like rivals Microsoft and Samsung.

One thing we probably won't see in 2016? That Apple Car everyone's talking about. Autonomous car technology has become a big focus for companies such as Google and Uber, and speculation about Apple's self-driving car plans has been swirling for months. We think the mystery of the Apple Car will be continued.

Apple declined to comment for this story.

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