iPhone 5: What the Past and Present Tell Us About the Future of the iPhone

PHOTO: The iPhone 4, 4S, 5 shown at the iPhone 5 launch press conference.Joanna Stern/ABC NEWS
The iPhone 4, 4S, 5 shown at the iPhone 5 launch press conference.

Apple has released the fifth major iteration of the iPhone close to the fifth anniversary of the original's release in June 2007. This version of the best-selling handset franchise offers an opportunity to reflect on the device's past, examine its new frontiers, and look ahead to its future.

The Past and Present

Of past iPhones, the iPhone 5 is probably closest to its immediate predecessor in terms of industrial design. It refines the rounded-off slab of its predecessor, elongating it to something that continues to stand out in the market. It has a wispy profile and bantam weight. It doesn't have the curved or puffed back of earlier generations or the forthcoming Nokia 920 or HTC Windows Phone 8x. The new design uses Apple's favorite materials, aluminum and glass.

While non-flip phones used to be called "candy bar" devices, the iPhone 5's dimensions really make it look closer to something out of the candy aisle than most other phones on the market. Despite its larger display, it stays true to the ideal of a comfortable fit in one's hand. And despite its adoption of power-hungry LTE, it maintains its reputation for highly competitive battery life.

The Future

The rumor mill may have cracked many of the hardware secrets of the iPhone 5 before its announcement, but at least until it gets going again, it will be difficult to say what future hardware will look like (The new Lightning connector, though, is a solid bet). Three of iOS 6's headline features -- an improved Siri, the new homegrown Maps app, and Passbook -- show signs of immaturity.

However, they also show how the company intends to move beyond siloed apps and deliver functionality that helps consumers to get things done along a path that Apple paves. In this scenario, one would use Siri to look up movies playing nearby, pass the theater information to Apple's Maps in order to enable turn-by-turn navigation to the theater, and have the ticket-taker scan the tickets through Passbook.

Omitted Technology, Never Omitted for Long

From their beginning, iPhones have followed an Apple tradition of attracting attention as much for what they've omitted as what they've included. At various points, this has included a physical keyboard, Flash, 3G, apps, multitasking, MMS, tethering, widgets LTE and other features. Apple has come around to many of these while continuing to leave out others. For the iPhone 5, the controversy has stirred around NFC -- the ability to initiate payments by tapping a phone to a terminal. It would seem to be an ideal complement to the iPhone's new Passbook feature, but Apple has instead relied on barcode scans for transactions.

It's understandable that the company might want to wait until the payments morass has improved, even as its major phone competitors step up their NFC efforts. But, as Microsoft is showing with the next generation of its PC and mobile operating systems, NFC has other tangible benefits such as initiating the transfer of photos, contact information and other content, to say nothing of the imaginative uses that the developer community might make of it. It's always possible that there may be alternatives on the horizon that Apple will endorse, but NFC could well become the next major technology to make the sudden leap from eschewed to embraced.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, an advisory services firm focused on consumer technology, and blogs at Techspressive. You can follow him on Twitter at @rossrubin.