iPhone X reveals the secrets of iPhones yet to come

CNET’s Roger Cheng and Scott Stein read the tea leaves of Apple's latest flagship phone for clues to upcoming iPhones.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile | 5G | Big Tech | Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Roger Cheng
Scott Stein
5 min read

Apple bills the iPhone X as "the smartphone of the future."

But we're sitting here tinkering with the iPhone X now, and can't help but to wonder what's next.

Fortunately, the new features of the iPhone X -- the TrueDepth camera, Face ID and even the new, bezel-less design -- offer hints of where the iPhone may go next. This is what Apple does: introduce a series of features over several generations, like Apple Wallet and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, only to combine them into a new capability like Apple Pay years later.

"If the iPhone X is Apple's foundation for the next 10 years, then what we see now will be the springboard for future iterations," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

Thanks to the clues left in the last two generations of iPhones, we were prepared when Apple finally shed the physical home button on the iPhone X.

So what does the future of the iPhone have in store for us? We offer a few educated guesses -- and our own personal hopes -- for what we'll see in the next generation of the iPhone.

Apple declined to comment. 

Bringing back the home button (virtually)

Wait, so we spent the last few years talking about getting rid of the home button, and now we want it back already? Just hear us out. 

The iPhone X boldly replaced the home button with a series of swipes and an emphasis on the larger side button.

The transition didn't need to be that extreme. In fact, the iPhone X's longer display is perfectly suited for a virtual home button -- one that can change depending on the app or situation. Apple has already done a good job creating the illusion of physical buttons with its haptic feedback -- those virtual buttons for the flashlight and camera on the lock screen are good examples.

Nic Henry/CNET

Bringing back a virtual home button may not seem to make sense when there's already a totally new iPhone X interface, but mixed with pressure-sensitive and tactile feedback, it could be used to add ways to access things like folders, recently-used apps, or bring up a larger dock featured in the iPad Pro .

You can see Apple more aggressively use 3D Touch to create the illusion that you're actually clicking down on a button, which, we have to admit, is more satisfying than a virtual tap. Why not have a multipurpose pressure zone that can be turned on to control more things at a tap?

Fingerprint reader returns?

OK, let's chalk this one up as more of a wish-list item.

Face ID works fine, and Apple says it's more secure than its fingerprint reader.

But there are times when that trusty Touch ID sensor works pretty well. The requirement to double tap the side button for Apple Pay makes for a process that's a little clunkier than before. There's also the limit of one face per iPhone X, which isn't great if you have a spouse or kids constantly grabbing your device.

The iPhone X has a radical new control scheme. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Bringing back Touch ID would address that issue. Prior to the release of the iPhone X, rumors cropped up over Apple working to embed a fingerprint sensor underneath the screen. That obviously didn't pan out, but the technology is feasible. Chinese phone maker Vivo in June showed off a phone using Qualcomm technology that embedded the sensor underneath the display -- with no need for a physical button. The phone is expected to come out next year.

Synaptics on Tuesday said it has begun the mass production of in-display fingerprint sensors for smartphones .

"With the fast trend toward edge-to-edge bezel-free infinity displays, and user preference for biometrics on the front of the phone, in-display fingerprint is the natural location," said Godfrey Cheng, vice president of marketing for Synaptics. He added a top-five global phone maker would announce a phone with this feature soon.

Apple uses Authentec, a startup it acquired in 2012, for its fingerprint sensor technology. It'd be a waste if the company ditches the technology so quickly. Other companies have incorporated both facial recognition and fingerprint sensors, including Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 and the OnePlus 5T , so there's no reason the iPhone couldn't either.

This may be a pipe dream, with many expecting Apple to move forward with facial recognition as its go-to security feature.

"Face ID in a very short period of time has become a very natural way to unlock the phone and one that is consistent," said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.

Adding TrueDepth to the back

The marquee feature of the iPhone X was the addition of the TrueDepth camera and its ability to map your face for tricks like Portrait mode-selfies.

Next year's iPhones could incorporate TrueDepth technology to rear cameras, further bolstering its augmented reality capabilities.

iPhone XS, XS Max and XR: 27 tips and tricks to master Apple's latest phones

See all photos

Apple CEO Tim Cook is extremely bullish on AR, and it's likely he will want to quickly push forward with the tech. The addition of TrueDepth in the rear camera can open up different possibilities. Pairing a 3D room-scanning camera with Apple's machine learning could create a capability akin to Google Lens.

An improved depth-sensing rear AR camera could also help future augmented reality apps interact more realistically with environments. ARKit's current tricks are impressive, but have their limits.

Notch in vogue?

The early reaction to the iPhone X's infamous "notch," the bit at the top of the phone that houses the TrueDepth camera, was brutal. Apple fanboys weren't sure what to make of the design choice, which broke from the traditionally clean lines found in the company's products.


The notch has become a distinctive indicator that you have a flagship iPhone. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

More than a month in, and nobody is complaining about the notch anymore. The early speculation is for Apple to bring the notch design to more of its iPhones next year. And while the Essential Phone came out with a notch on the phone first, the popularity of the iPhone X has made the look its new calling card.  

"While the notch has been controversial in tech circles, it gives the iPhone X a distinctive look -- so much so that Apple can use just the outline as a logo," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data.

The industry has long copied iPhone features -- rumored or real. Will this be the new norm for all smartphones?

Either way, we can't wait to see what's next. 

Does the Mac still matter? Apple execs explain why the MacBook Pro was over four years in the making, and why we should care.

CNET Magazine: Check out a sample of the stories in CNET's newsstand edition.