The Biggest iPhone Leak Yet Won’t Bruise Apple


Apple will announce its latest iPhone on Tuesday (technically three iPhones, including the new high-end iPhone X), but you can find out practically anything you want to know about it already. That’s thanks not to the usual rumor mill but to the leak of the “golden master” version of iOS 11, which details key, previously unannounced iPhone features, and indicates new versions of the Apple TV and Apple Watch as well.

As leaks go, you can’t get much more severe. Gizmodo showed off the iPhone 4 months ahead of its official reveal, but had no insight into the software—what the phone could actually do. A more recent slip on Apple’s part showed what the iPhone X will look like, and confirmed its face-recognition prowess, but didn’t offer anywhere near the comprehensive look that the iOS 11 GM does.

For a company that prizes itself on secrecy, the leaks to Apple enthusiast sites 9to5Mac and MacRumors are especially worrisome in that they were deliberate. This was no iPhone left at a bar, or firmware accidentally posted; the BBC confirmed that an “anonymous source” passed along the download URLs that contained the keys to the upcoming iPhones’ system. Apple-watcher John Gruber suggests, more specifically, that an Apple employee pulled it off.

“It’s very surprising, and I’m sure absolutely infuriating to the vast majority of employees at Apple who work on the iPhone,” says Jan Dawson, founder of tech-focused Jackdaw Research.

Infuriating, yes. Embarrassing? Sure. Injurious? A little, maybe, if you’re slated to present at Apple’s main event Tuesday, with your best talking points showing up on the internet a few days early. But despite the magnitude of the leak, Apple won’t feel any impact at all.

Big Reveal

While Apple announced iOS 11 this summer, and with it several marquee features, the company intentionally withholds portions of code from beta releases that might give away information about upcoming hardware. An iOS GM only comes after the new iPhone itself—and its most cutting-edge abilities—have seen its official debut.

The release of the iOS 11 GM, then, gives away practically everything, big and small, about the next iPhone. It contains so much, in fact, that it wouldn’t be practical to outline it all here. But a few key reveals bear mentioning, if only to drive home the scale.

The leak “provided more concrete information about vague stuff we had found before,” says Guilherme Rambo, who had previously uncovered details about the upcoming iPhone hidden in a premature release of HomePod code. That includes the actual names of features and devices; the new iPhone model had previously been known only as “D22;” now we know it’s the iPhone X, and will appear alongside an iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

The most important revelations center around face-recognition, a previously established upgrade but one with scant details. We now know its name as well—“Face ID,” rather than “Pearl ID,” as it was previously known—and developers are actively trying it out.

The next iPhone’s facial recognition feature appears to use a depth sensor, rather than simple image recognition, to help beat spoofing. You’ll be able to use it for Apple Pay purchases, though it’ll require a double-click of the side button to confirm. Also? It comes with an adorable set-up graphic:

Also adorable in iOS 11: Animoji, a portmanteau for “animated emoji,” which builds on the face-recognition tech to sync up emoji—including, apparently, the poop emoji—with your facial expressions. Here’s how that looks in practice:

A smörgåsbord of new info fills out the leak. The iPhone X should support wireless charging. A new feature called “Portrait Lighting” should give the iPhone X camera a serious upgrade—likewise its ability to shoot in 4K at 60fps (the iPhone 7 Plus shoots 4k at 30fps).

There’s so much more, and not just about the iPhones. The iOS 11 GM shows that the next Apple TV will have a major processor and RAM upgrade—and that you’ll need a 15Mbps internet connection to take advantage of its new 4K powers, just one of several discoveries by iOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith.

Oh, and there’s a new Apple Watch and AirPods. Here’s what those look like:

Concrete confirmation of one of these details, taken alone, would constitute a remarkable breach. Cumulatively, they’re almost unthinkable. Don’t expect the fallout to reflect the severity, though, or even to register at all.

Spoiler Alert

Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly lamented leaks as impacting iPhone sales. People hear about the new model, and hold off on upgrading until it’s out.

The obvious answer to why this leak won’t hurt Apple? Invites to the iPhone event went out two weeks ago—everyone knows it’s coming. And while this round of leaks has garnered major headlines, it’s likely to only reach those who closely track iPhone rumors anyway.

“The vast majority of potential buyers won’t read anything about the leaks but will definitely see the coverage of the launch,” says Dawson.

Even beyond the timing issue, the way people buy smartphones now limits the impact not just of this leak but ultimately of any leak. People who own iPhones are almost guaranteed to keep buying iPhones, full stop.

“For the most part, normal consumers—not high-end tech enthusiasts, early adopters, but most people—are locked in,” says Gartner mobile analyst Tuong Nguyen. “You’re accustomed to a certain interface. Switching is a little bit jarring. There’s also the apps that I downloaded already, maybe I paid for them. Why do I want to keep paying for the same thing over and over again?”

At this point, the only way a leak could alter that inertia would likely have less to do with the smartphone itself, Nguyen says, than with a peripheral that makes an entire ecosystem appealing enough to jump ship—be it a head-mounted virtual reality display or a smartwatch that finally goes mainstream.

The leaks do take some fizzle out of Tuesday’s reveal, but curbed enthusiasm shouldn’t curb sales. Besides, smartphones have become so thoroughly commoditized at this point, that showmanship seems less and less important, almost to the point of being overwrought, strobe lights and deep bass unveiling a fancy loaf of bread.

A lot of yelling no doubt took place in Cupertino last week. A lot of trouble will go into hunting down the source of Apple’s biggest leak yet. But anyone who was going to buy an iPhone will still do so. Anyone who wasn’t still won’t. Everything else is just a show. The only difference this year is who’s putting it on.

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