For those keeping score, we now have two major rumors about the iPhone 5S, the phone that Apple seems all but certain to launch on Sept. 10 alongside a cheaper model, the iPhone 5c. And it just so happens that these two rumors represent the two major, wildly different directions Apple finds itself pulled in as a company.
Put simply, it’s a choice between more cool stuff under the hood, versus more cool stuff on the surface.
On one side, there’s the company’s ongoing quest for innovation. This is represented by the rumor that the iPhone 5S will come with a biometric fingerprint scanner, either on or just beneath the home button. It’s not just analyst speculation: the beta version of iOS 7, which the iPhone 5S will run, includes a folder called “BiometricKitUI.”
Apple also won a patent for a fingerprint scanner built into the bezel back in June, and bought a fingerprint-scanning company, Authentec, in 2012. Note that Apple bought the company Siri in 2010, then launched its Siri feature in 2011; you do the math.
Biometric fingerprint scanning would be a ridiculously useful feature for just about every iPhone owner. Gone would be the choice between leaving your phone unlocked or having to type an annoying passcode every time you pick it up. Say so long to stolen phones where the thief posts selfies, or embarrassing moments where your kid grabs your phone and accidentally sends a text to your boss.
Such a sensor holds the door open to easy verification for payment systems. Perhaps just as importantly, it would quell any fears that Apple is losing its edge in smartphone innovation (and help CEO Tim Cook dodge those pesky questions from shareholders).
There was a fingerprint reader in the Motorola Atrix phone in 2011, but in the most inconvenient location possible — on the back, at the top. It didn’t always work, and wasn’t included on the second version of the phone. But Apple is held to a higher standard; if it’s ready to launch fingerprint sensing, you can bet they’ve ironed out the kinks.
Other rumors suggest that the home button bezel would be made out of superstrong scratchproof sapphire glass, the stuff currently used on military vehicles; this should help get more accurate fingerprint readings for the lifetime of the phone. It would supposedly be convex rather than concave, an outie rather than an innie.
I’d miss the familiar feeling of my thumb resting in the concave home button — but I’d pay that price to see Apple make another innovative leap forward.
Going for Gold
Then there’s the other impulse that seems to hang around at companies like Apple like a devil on the shoulder: just dress a product up in pretty packaging and call it new. What else can you say about Monday’s widespread rumor that the next iPhone will be available in gold (or more accurately, according to some sources, champagne)?
Oh, I’m sure gold would help Apple reach a certain section of the market. It would underline the message that the iPhone is at the top of the range, the luxury phone, worth paying a few extra hundred dollars for. It would also help the company shift iPhones in China, apparently, where gold is a popular color, and where iPhone sales have slumped by around 50% in the space of a quarter. (Note the gold-plated Chinese iPhone accessory in the photo above.)
But it would also be a signal that the company Jobs built is getting distracted by the glitter of surface detail. When the iPhone 5 launched last year, Apple gave us little more than surface-level stuff — it was a little bit taller, somewhat lighter, and look at all the craftsmanship that went into milling those shiny edges! (Cue a video with Apple design guru Jonny Ive talking about the shiny edges.)
In short, if the fingerprint sensor rumor turns out to be true, we know Apple is not beyond taking bold technological risks. If the gold iPhone rumor turns out to be true, then we have a company still trading on the glitter of its past. And if Apple offers both, we’ll know Cupertino’s best and worst impulses are both alive and well.
Image: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images