Apple tries to move beyond just iPhone sales as smartphone market stagnates

Tech giant introduces smaller yet valuable updates to hardware and services

Are we suffering from smartphone fatigue? The data indicates we may be.

Shipments of the devices are falling globally, with some analysts predicting that in 2023 they would hit a decade low. According to IDC, the drop could be close to 5 per cent year on year as consumers continue to hang on to their phones for longer. The days of the yearly or even two-yearly upgrades are gone.

That’s a good trend to have though, as environmental awareness increases and the cost of living crisis indicates that priorities have shifted, and having the latest, greatest smartphone isn’t always one of them.

It’s against this backdrop that Apple unveiled its latest iPhones, touting faster chips and improved cameras, alongside updated Apple Watch and Watch Ultra that come with more advanced features, but no “one more thing” mic-drop moment.


It’s a tough job to impress a crowd these days. Smartphones have become so advanced that it is difficult to come up with a new idea that really grabs attention in the way it may have done a decade ago.

“The lack of headline-grabbing updates will disappoint some, but isn’t a surprise given the maturity of the iPhone and Watch. It reflects just how refined the iPhone and Watch devices are and how tough it has become to deliver truly disruptive updates every year,” said Ben Wood, analyst with CCS Insight.

It is worth noting that Apple continues to ship millions of handsets every quarter.

Apple has long since abandoned the “tick/tock” approach to its phones, where one year would be the big bang upgrade, followed by a year of incremental changes. The updates now are less flashy, but arguably more valuable, even if we don’t realise it. A more efficient chip that can process Siri requests on the device, a better camera that can capture enough information that you can turn your quick shot into a stunning portrait with a few taps. A lighter, easier to handle design that happens to be more repairable than before.

Last year, Apple introduced satellite SOS, designed to be used to send distress messages if you need help but are out of mobile range. The technology has already been put to good use, leading to the rescue of a family stuck in the wildfires in Maui earlier this year.

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The company is developing that further, to include roadside assistance via AAA in the United States, which seems like the logical next step, but it has yet to discuss rolling it out any further than that.

One of the biggest changes was also the most widely flagged: the adoption of USB-C for the iPhone. That change wasn’t a move dictated by the company’s roadmap; instead, it was European Union regulators that forced Apple’s hand.

“It will irk some people, but ultimately, it’s a victory for common sense becoming the standard connector for all consumer electronics devices,” said Mr Wood.

But there were other interesting aspects to the Apple Wonderlust event that may have got overlooked. The Apple Watch Series 9, for example, now has a chip that can process Siri requests on board. That means no sending to the cloud, which makes it faster and more secure, and also opens up your health data to Siri. It is a small move that helps protect your privacy.

Another was the changes to iCloud+, with Apple adding new storage plans to the online service – important as we produce ever more data.

One thing that we didn’t hear much about was artificial intelligence, although there was plenty of talk around the topic.

“It positioned itself as an AI leader without mentioning AI,” said Insider Intelligence principal analyst Yory Wurmser. “The presenters mentioned machine learning, neural engines and GPUs repeatedly that enable all types of improvements. Apple clearly is accelerating its AI initiatives with the A17 and S9 chips.”

“It’s getting ready for Vision Pro. The event mentioned Vision Pro at the outset but went into no details,” said Mr Wurmser. “But several of the product announcements clearly come from that product’s development, or will be critical for it. Double tap, the new control via finger gesture in Apple Watch, seems pretty similar to some of the controls developed for Vision Pro. And a lot of the camera improvements, such as 48MP pictures and the spatial video recording, are meant for playback on Vision Pro. The advancements in ultra-wideband (UWB) chips also could enable better augmented reality down the line.”

A few subtle design changes aside, it seems Apple is concentrating more on what is under the hood – for now at least.

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist