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HomePod’s Firmware and the Next iPhone

Brian Barrett, writing for Wired on the biggest iPhone scoop in months:

When developer Guilherme Rambo saw that Apple had released firmware for the upcoming HomePod speaker, he thought it must have been a mistake. The HomePod doesn’t come out until December, after all. Curiosity piqued, he started digging through the code, where he found perhaps the last thing he expected: Apple’s next iPhone.

While some details regarding Apple’s redesigned, high-end iPhone—called the iPhone 8 or iPhone Pro, though no one outside Cupertino knows the official name yet—had previously leaked, Rambo found in the HomePod not rumors or hints but Apple’s own documentation of one of its biggest releases in years. It confirms a new look with a slimmer bezel, the death of the home button, and a powerful new face-recognition feature. It’s the biggest bombshell Apple leak in years—and it came from Apple itself.

If it was an accident, this is a remarkable slip-up for Apple – not only was a glyph depicting an unreleased iPhone found in the HomePod firmware uploaded to Apple’s public servers – itself quite a curious story – but Rambo and the ever-proficient Steven Troughton-Smith are finding all kinds of references by digging into the software. From face unlock with support for facial expressions and an infra-red camera to major changes to the status bar (which is going to support a split mode) and the expected removal of the Home button, it sounds like the next iPhone is going to change the most basic iPhone interactions we know. We’re far from rumor territory at this point: we’re looking at references and APIs scattered throughout a firmware file uploaded on Apple’s servers.

Beyond changes to the core of iOS though, I’m interested to see how much iOS 11 was designed with this next iPhone in mind. The large title bars and new safe area inset APIs always seemed like obvious hints; I think Allen Pike is on the right track with his idea of title bar controls being docked at the bottom, next to the virtual Home button (which follows the theme of thumb-friendly navigation this year). But what about ARKit with the addition of a 3D-capable front-facing camera? And will a possible function area around the Home button be programmable by developers to add custom buttons and shortcuts, à la Touch Bar/iPad Shortcuts Bar?

As always, hardware leaks and rumors only tell one half of the future iPhone story, and to me that’s not even the most interesting part anymore. It’s all about the implementation of the hardware and software together, the constraints Apple faced, and the trade-offs they chose. This has never been more apparent than this year: we all seem to know what the next iPhone is going to look like, but nobody knows how iOS will work on it. The next Apple event is going to be a fun one.