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HomePod Devs Stumble Upon Next iPhone Design Clues

By John P. Mello Jr.
Jul 31, 2017 4:11 PM PT

Developers combing through the code for the Apple HomePod have found clues to what appear to be features in the next generation of iPhones, and they tweeted their discoveries on Sunday.

The firmware for HomePod, Apple's US$349 smart speaker expected in December, apparently contains much of the codebase for future iPhones. One of the goodies in the HomePod's code is a new biometric method for unlocking an iPhone.

The use of facial recognition to unlock a phone has been around in the Android world for more than a year, and reactions have been mixed.

"Recent reviews of the face lock feature on Samsung's Galaxy S8 remarked on the slowness of the process, its ineffectiveness in full daylight, and that early iterations were easily fooled with simple photographs," noted Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"Interestingly, face lock can't be used to authenticate Samsung Pay purchases.," he told TechNewsWorld.

Tough to Fool Camera

"Facial recognition really hasn't taken off with Android," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research.

Users appear content to use the fingerprint sensors found in most phones, but that may change, he explained.

"With display aspect ratios changing, and room disappearing for front-mounted fingerprint sensors, some sensors have been moved to the back of the phone, which can make things trickier for users," Rubin told TechNewsWorld.

Because an infrared camera creates a 3D image of a face, it has advantages over face recognition performed with light-dependent cameras. For example, recognition can be achieved regardless of lighting conditions.

What's more, the technology is more difficult to game than a conventional camera.

"Things like a picture or mask of a face won't unlock a phone if the infrared is done right," observed Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Facial recognition also can be faster than other unlock methods, he told TechNewsWorld.

"If face unlock works, you don't have to use a pin or thumb reader to gain access," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

"In theory, it is even more secure," he told TechNewsWorld, "since it scans more data points from a face to make sure it is you that is accessing the iPhone."

Edge-to-Edge Evidence

The next iPhone may feature facial recognition for technical reasons, suggested Krewell.

"Apple wanted to put the fingerprint sensor under the display, but they haven't been able to get it to work yet," he pointed out.

Developers scrutinizing HomePod's code found information about that display. An image in the firmware of the front of the phone appears to show an almost edge-to-edge display that extends around the speakers and sensors at the top of the device.

Rumors of an edge-to-edge OLED display in a special anniversary edition iPhone have been circulating for months, and these latest observations by developers are more evidence that those rumors have been on target.

Near edge-to-edge screens have become common fare in the Android market.

"I've used a phone with an edge-to-edge screen, and they're pretty nice," said Bob O'Donnell, chief analyst at Technalysis Research.

"Once you get used to that complete sheet of glass with nothing around it, it's hard to go back to screens with bezels around them," he told TechNewsWorld.

Buzz Reaching Crescendo

The "iPhone 8" -- or whatever it is named -- will be a premium product selling in the $1,000 to $1,400 price range, by all accounts. If that's the case, it would makes sense for it to have an edge-to-edge display.

"Edge-to-edge is the path that premium phones are taking," Reticle's Rubin noted. "If you're not taking that approach now, it's perceived that you're not at the leading edge of design, where Apple wants to be."

As the announcement window for the new iPhones shrinks and the rumors about them get stronger, the buzz is getting louder.

"Apple's launch strategy for the iPhone 8 is right on the money," said Andreas Scherer, managing partner with Salto Partners.

"The expectations associated with its release are rising to a crescendo," he noted.

"The buzz around the new iPhone 8 might take away some of the punch from the standard iPhone 7s models," Scherer told TechNewsWorld. "Ultimately, though, as Steve Jobs correctly stated, if you don't cannibalize your own business someone else will."

John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.

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