This year’s iPhone launch event hit a rocky patch when Apple exec Craig Federighi went to demonstrate the iPhone X’s facial recognition technology, Face ID, which replaces the fingerprint scanner as a security mechanism.
“Unlocking it is as easy as looking at it and swiping up…” he said, waiting an agonising few seconds while the device refused to unlock. He tried a second time – again, nothing – before switching to a back-up phone.
The technical hitch, which came after the 10th anniversary edition of the iPhone had been revealed with huge fanfare, caused a temporary crash in Apple’s market value. The stock soon rallied, however, as analysts described this year’s launch event as putting Apple in an “extraordinarily strong” position.
Held for the first time in a 1,000-seat auditorium in the company’s newly-built “space ship” campus, Apple Park, the annual product showcase unveiled three new iPhones, the high-end iPhone X, iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, as well as an upgraded Apple Watch and 4K Apple TV.
Before the product announcements, there was a lengthy section of the keynote dedicated to Apple’s retail strategy, in which the company’s head of retail Angela Ahrendts said the company no longer refers to its shops as “stores” but “town squares”. This, she said, was because they host so many events and training sessions that they have become “gathering places”. Good luck trying to hold a protest or picnic in these corporate “town squares”.
The iPhone X was introduced to the audience by CEO Tim Cook using the “one more thing” format that former CEO Steve Jobs used to surprise and delight people during his keynotes. Unfortunately for Cook, very little in the announcement was surprising thanks to major leaks in the preceding days.
“If there hadn’t been all the leaks there would have been a lot of big surprises and people would have come away blown away. The leaks took the edge off the announcements, but we’ve still seen a very strong set of products that re-establish Apple’s lead in a lot of categories,” said Apple analyst Jan Dawson.
The iPhone X comes with some striking features including the an edge-to-edge screen, no home screen button (because the screen now spans the entire front of the device), and the infrared-powered facial recognition system that Apple says is 20 times more secure than Touch ID (when it’s working). Face ID is not only used for unlocking the phone, but also making payments and logging into banking apps.
“The iPhone is locked until you look at it and it recognizes you,” said senior vice-president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller, adding that it recognizes your face even if you change your hairstyle or are wearing glasses or a hat.
Face ID works by capturing a 3D scan of a person’s face. Once the user has enrolled their face, they can unlock the phone just by glancing at it. There are other devices that use facial recognition to unlock, including Samsung’s flagship phone the Galaxy S8. However without a 3D scan, they can be easily spoofed by showing the device a photo of its owner.
Even with 3D image capture, some facial recognition systems can be fooled with an accurate model or mask of someone’s face. Apple said it worked with professional mask-makers and make-up artists in Hollywood to create replicas of people’s faces so they could train Face ID to recognize spoofing attempts.
Face ID also allows for some lighthearted features, including a new type of animated emoji, called Animoji, which can be controlled using a person’s own facial expressions. Finally iPhone users can puppeteer the poop emoji.
“Apple’s move into facial recognition is going to move public awareness of facial recognition forward in a huge way,” said Brian Brackeen, a former Apple project manager who now runs facial recognition company Kairos.
He added that Apple also bought an emotion-tracking company called Emotient last year, so in the future the company might incorporate that into its offering.
Alongside the iPhone X, Apple launched the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, which will have a more powerful processor, better bassier speakers and an upgraded camera with portrait lighting to allow for better pictures of people. All of the phones can be charged wirelessly using a Qi standard charging pad.
In addition to the iPhones, the Silicon Valley titan unveiled a new version of its smartwatch, Apple Watch Series 3, with cellular connectivity, which means you can take calls without having to pair it with a phone, enhanced fitness monitoring and coaching tools, and streaming service Apple Music.
It also upgraded its TV streaming box, Apple TV, with 4K resolution – an industry standard Apple has been slow to adopt.
Analysts noted that Apple is still heavily reliant on the iPhone for the bulk of its revenue, but acknowledge that the company is diversifying into spaces including health, home automation and content.
“The iPhone will always be the headline,” said Dawson. “Everything else hangs off it.”
Even so, analyst Geoff Blaber from CSS insight said that Apple is in “an extraordinarily strong position”.
“In hardware terms, it’s really at the top of the smartphone market. Samsung is a fierce competitor but Apple continues to lead and differentiate in how the hardware, software and services come together. That’s why Apple continues to define the industry.”