Wow. What a year 2015 was for Apple. The 12in MacBook, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, Apple Pay, Apple Music, Beats 1 and, of course, the Apple Watch, gave us plenty to talk about - and these releases give us plenty of hints about what might be coming up in 2016 and 2017.
In this article we look in our crystal ball and predict the products and services Apple will launch in the second half of 2016 and 2017.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Apple Watch 2
Apple hasn't exactly bet the farm on its Watch. It was launched with appropriate fanfare, but the company has played it slow and sure since then. In-store display areas are discreet, and overshadowed by its longer-established lines. Perhaps the company realises that a fair few of us are waiting for the first revision.
Expect that to come later in 2016. In April, the original model turned 12 months old, and although two major operating system updates have added a range of new features - watchOS 3 was unveiled at WWDC in June 2016 - it would be risky for Apple to wait more than 18 months between hardware updates to a product line as high-profile as its smartwatch. (Granted, Tim Cook may also have been wary about straying too far in the other direction. It would be galling in the extreme to spend £13,500 on a smartwatch, as some deep-pocketed Apple Watch Edition buyers did last year, and then see it rendered obsolete a few months later.)
The first revision will almost certainly be an extensive upgrade to bring it in line with its most ambitious competitors, so we're expecting an Apple Watch 2, rather than an iPhone-style 'S' variant. We're also expecting it to be an entirely stand-alone device, along the lines of Samsung's Gear S2, which connects directly to the cellular network, bypassing the Galaxy Phone entirely.
This might seem illogical if you considered the Apple Watch to be a stealth marketing tool for increased iPhone sales, but it wouldn't be the first time Apple has broken an explicit link between two core products to boost the sales of the newcomer. Think back to its original strategy with the iPod, which was to use it as a Trojan Horse for the Mac (it required a FireWire-enabled computer running iTunes which, at that time, wasn't available on Windows). Only when it produced a PC version did the iPod really fly, and change the company's fortunes forever.
Why do we believe it's going to do that here? Aside from the need to compete with Samsung, it's because watchOS 2, which rolled out on 21 September 2015, made it possible for the first time to run third-party applications directly, without using the phone as a data conduit. Building in full-blown phone-free comms is the next logical step.
This will require some additional components - in particular a SIM card and associated circuitry - but advances made in the last 12 months suggest that shouldn't be a problem. The S1 processor in the current Apple Watch is built using the same 28 nanometer process as the chip in the iPhone 5s, which was current while Apple was closing Watch's development cycle. Since then, we've seen both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s hit the shelves, and they use a considerably finer process, with their A9 processors built using a 14 nanometer process. Assuming Apple develops a new chip - likely called the S2 - for its second-generation Watch, it's reasonable to assume that it will employ the same 14-nanometer process and, rather than slimming the wearable, use the reclaimed space to bolster its built-in features.
Other notable omissions from Apple Watch that could be addressed in the first revision are native GPS, additional health sensors and a higher capacity battery, not necessarily to deliver a longer work time, but to deal with the additional load of the bolstered range of sensors and comms.
The new Watch should also be able to collect more health data, apparently Apple had high hopes for the health capabilities of the original Apple Watch but had to remove some of the sensors before launch because of accuracy issues. These could include blood oxygen levels and blood pressure, for example.
We also expect it will be a little thinner and faster, have better battery life, and that a front-facing camera might make it onto the Watch for FaceTime calls. We'd also appreciate a WiFi chip that can connect directly to a network without requiring the iPhone as an intermediary. In fact, less reliance on the iPhone full stop, although the WatchOS 2 release in September meant that some apps could run independently of an iPhone. GPS capabilities and better water resistance would also be appreciated.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iPhones
Apple predictions for 2016: iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus
We've already had an 'S' model since the last full update, so expect 2016's iPhone 7 to be a more extensive revamp - we're expecting a bit of a redesign for Apple's 4.7in and 5.5in iPhones, as is customary when Apple makes a leap from S to a whole new number.
Pundits are forecasting the death of the home button, which we don't think many would mourn. Adopting soft buttons, as are common on Android devices, makes sense, and it would allow Apple to increase the screen size without bulking up the physical body. Conversely, it may reclaim the lost space to produce a smaller device with the same 16:9 aspect screen as it employed in the iPhone 5, 5s and 5c to tempt an upgrade out of anyone who was put off by the iPhone 6 and 6s's wider, taller bodies.
Before you assume that losing the Home Button and its fingerprint scanner would be unlikely in this era of Apple Pay, Apple has a patent that indicates it's been looking at onscreen fingerprint scanners. Alternatively, there's no reason why the fingerprint reader couldn't be moved to the side of the case or sited by the earpiece, on the opposite side to the front-mounted camera.
Building the iPhone 7 around an AMOLED screen - as used in the Apple Watch - would also make sense on several fronts, as it's less power-hungry than the LCD technology Apple currently uses, can display more colours and is more responsive, but it seems unlikely that Apple will roll it into the iPhone any time soon. Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities, believes the company will persevere with LCD for several years, and with Apple suppliers building new LCD factories in China to satisfy future demand, it looks like he could well be right.
Some of the other new features you can expect: wireless charging, haptic feedback for the on-screen keyboard, waterproof, better battery life, improved camera, A10 processor and 3GB of RAM in the 5.5in version. Other rumours point to a thinner design, a 3D camera, and the elimination of the 3.5mm headphone jack, with the iPhone 7 shipping with wireless headphones. Lightning headphones will be another option.
There are two potential benefits to losing the headphone jack: the iPhone could be slightly thinner (apparently 1mm) and if the headphones were to use the Lightning port that could allow for high-res audio.
We also hope 2016 is the year Apple stops selling the inadequate 16GB version of the iPhone.
Read more about iPhone 7: iPhone 7 release date rumours & new features
And the iPhone 7 Plus: iPhone 7 Plus release date rumours
We're now fairly sure there won't be a third iPhone 7 Pro model. It was understood that the iPhone 7 Pro would feature a dual-lens camera, with the 7 Plus a similarly sized but single-lensed version in case the supply chain was unable to meet demand for the camera components - but the supply chain seems to have managed. You can read about that theory here: iPhone 7 Pro release date rumours
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iPads
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iPad Air 3
There was no new iPad Air in 2015 so some Apple fans are expecting an update to that model soon; but we suspect that the 9.7in iPad Pro (yep, Apple has ported the Pro branding to the medium-sized iPads - confusing, right?) has now displaced the Air line. We're not convinced that Apple will release another Air-branded product at all, in fact, with the MacBook Air's tiny update this spring giving the impression that Apple has shifted its focus to the 12-inch MacBook instead.
There are a few updates an iPad Air 3 could benefit from: we expect the iPad Air 3 will have a faster processor, better camera, and 3D Touch (although KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo doesn't think 3D Touch will make an appearance, apparently due to production issues). But our bet would be on the Air 2 being the last of its family line.
Read more about the iPad Air 3: iPad Air 3 rumours
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iPad mini 5
Given that the iPad mini was just updated in September, and on the assumption that Apple might have slowed down its upgrade cycle for the iPads, given that people don't update their tablets as often as their iPhones, maybe we won't see a new iPad mini in 2016, and maybe this doesn't really matter.
Read more about the iPad mini 5: iPad mini 5 release date & new feature rumours
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iPad Pro 2
With the 12.9-inch iPad Pro arriving in November 2015, and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in March 2016, it's hard to guess Apple's plans for this line. Our suspicion is that Apple will be patient and update both in spring 2017, but much will depend on how effectively they have dealt with the stagnating iPad sales problem we've observed in the past few earnings calls.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Apple TV
Apple's television product - once famously dubbed a hobby by Steve Jobs - has undergone its most ambitious revamp in years. For UK users, meanwhile, the big news of 2016 is likely to be the appearance of BBC iPlayer on the platform. The Corporation has already finally extended its existing browser-based service to the Apple box, where it will join Sky, which has been on the service for some time.
Sadly, though, that could be it as far as the UK's free-to-air broadcasters are concerned, unless any other unofficial ports appear online. The BBC reported in October that ITV had no plans to appear on Apple TV (just as it initially didn't appear on either Sky or Freeview), while the intentions of Channels 4 and 5 were 'unknown'.
There were also rumours in 2015 that Apple would launch a Netflix-competing streaming service for Apple TV (at least in the US) but nothing materialised. Apparently the company just can't reach agreements with the networks. Perhaps the company will focus on the app structure instead and allow companies to provide their own streaming services in the form of apps. We'd like to see Apple adopt an Apple Music-esque system for providing TV shows via iTunes, though, rather than paying £2.99 per episode.
As for the Apple TV hardware, there have been rumours pointing to a new Apple TV box launching in early 2016, but we think that is unlikely given the fact that Apple only just launched the fourth generation Apple TV.
Read more about the Apple TV: New Apple TV 2015 review | The best new Apple TV games of 2015 & 2016 | Best Apple TV apps | Tips for using the new Apple TV Siri Remote | New 2016 Apple TV release date rumours
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Macs
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: 2016 Mac Pro
The Mac Pro is due a refresh - it hasn't been updated since its launch in 2013 and now it's looking a little long in the tooth, being bypassed by generations of Intel chips that never made it into the chassis. Will Apple update the Mac Pro in 2016 or has it given up entirely on this professional Mac workstation? We don’t anticipate any external remodelling, but references within El Capitan's code suggest a new machine could be in the works, which would enable Apple to benefit from the last two years of processor advances.
We hope Apple is just waiting for the E5 V4 Broadwell chips that are set to launch in the first half of 2016, or perhaps integrating Skylake, so that its complete line-up is running on the same core hardware from end to end, so a WWDC launch could be possible.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: MacBook Air
Back in 2015 the rumours were pointing to a MacBook Air with Retina display; what Apple actually gave us was a whole new MacBook with Retina display, in the 12in form factor. This has rather left the MacBook Air in limbo, but while the MacBook Air isn't as powerful as the MacBook Pro, it's a whole lot more powerful than the MacBook, and it's a lot less expensive. Many people still rate the Air as a reasonably priced, portable laptop.
But we suspect that Apple may be considering retiring the Air to the great Genius Bar in the sky. Spring 2016 saw the most perfunctory of updates to the MacBook Air - the company merely included in the base price a RAM upgrade that had previously been optional - and unless something more radical arrives in 2017 (spring would be the most likely time for the next refresh) the user base will drift away.
If Apple does go down the 'radical update' route, the Air could finally get its Retina display (if that pushes the price up, mind you, people may be less keen). What the MacBook Air really needs is a performance boost and improved specs - it's currently using an Intel processor that's a few generations old and we are hoping Skylake processors will make an appearance in the new models - apparently the Skylake U processors that seem destined for the MacBook Air will ship in the early part of 2016. A physical makeover wouldn't go amiss either, with the laptop sporting the exact same design since 2010.
But we suspect that the MacBook Air, like the iPad Air, is on the way out.
Read more here: New MacBook Air release date, specs & rumours.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Retina MacBook Pro
The MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook both got updates in spring 2016, but the MacBook Pro is still waiting. Something more substantial is surely on the cards.
We'd like to see a bit of a makeover, but it's what's inside that counts, and what's inside currently is the Intel Broadwell processor in the 13in model and inexplicably, the even older Haswell processor in the 15in version. We say inexplicably, but part of that blame must lie at the feet of Intel, who was particularly lax at updating its chips in 2015. It seems likely that the MacBook Pro range will finally get the Skylake chips at some point in 2016. That will make a lot of professional Mac users very happy.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: 12in Retina MacBook update
Apple launched its incredibly thin and light 12in MacBook back in March 2015, and the MacBook's first birthday saw a solid if unspectacular update - various sensible specs boosts, and a rose gold colour option.
The third iteration of the 12in MacBook is likely to appear in spring 2017. Rumours are thin on the ground right now, but some of the wilder speculation has suggested that it might feature a 'Force Touch keyboard' - a keyboard, in other words, that doesn't actually move in response to your key presses, instead simulating presses through haptic feedback just like the Force Touch trackpad. Sounds pretty bizarre - not to mention difficult to use for touch-typing - but that's the sort of thing you tend to hear this far ahead of a launch.
Read more in our 2017 MacBook rumour round-up.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Mac mini
The Mac mini missed out on being updated in 2015 so we are hoping to see a 2016 update to the machine that is currently using Haswell processors. Hopefully 2016 will see a new Mac mini with Skylake processors (which are apparently scheduled to ship in the first few months of 2016. Perhaps the Mac mini is another Mac update to look out for this Spring.
Read more in our new Mac mini release date rumours article.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: New iMacs
It's not been that long since the iMac was updated (although that update was long overdue). However, while the high-end models use Skylake processors already, the 21.5in models are still using Broadwell chips - however, it would appear that Intel has no plans to make Skylake chips that would be suitable for the iMacs as Skylake won't include the integrated Iris or Iris Pro graphics cards that are used with these Macs. If an update happens in 2016 we don't expect it to come until much later in the year.
Read more in our new iMac release date rumours article.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Mac processor updates
Despite Apple's adventures into processor design it's unlikely we'll see the company rolling out its own chips in its desktop and laptop machines unless it can make them fully compatible with the current Intel line-up.
Wonderful though it would be to run iOS apps alongside OS X software, Apple would need to give developers several years' notice to update their applications to run on any new architecture, so expect to still be buying Intel-driven machines throughout the next 12 months, as the new Skylake processor line takes over from existing chips from spring.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Force Touch Keyboard
A Force Touch keyboard could be in the works, too - as a supplement to the Magic Trackpad 2 - if a recent patent filing is anything to go by. The switchless design would allow Apple to produce even thinner MacBooks, and also to take into account the force with which a key is pressed, which will be a boon for anyone making music on their Mac. In the opposite direction it should allow for haptic feedback, which could possibly be used to signify to vision-impaired users that they're correctly striking a particular key.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: USB Type-C
One more thing relating to Macs… With Thunderbolt 3 set to use the same port as USB C, does this mean we will see the back of the USB C port, currently only featuring on the MacBook, in favour of the Thunderbolt port, that features on all other Macs. Or will all Macs get a new port?
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Software & services
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: iOS 10
Apple announced the next version of iOS at WWDC in June 2016, and we expect it to roll it out in September as usual, along with the iPhone 7 release.
There are more than 100 new features in the updated mobile operating system, and far too many to go into here, but we can skim over a few highlights: the ability to hide many preinstalled apps; 'Raise To Wake'; an extensive redesign of Apple Music; third-party Siri; all sorts of new emoji and visual effects in Messages; an entire new app called Home for controlling smart-home appliances; voicemail transcription.
Read more about iOS 10 here: iOS 10 release date and new features. Or listen to us talk about our favourite features in this video:
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: macOS Sierra
Like iOS 10, the new version of Apple's Mac operating system was unveiled at WWDC 2016, and will roll out in the autumn.
macOS Sierra features Siri now, as well as Apple Pay, the ability to proximity-unlock a Mac using a paired Apple Watch and various storage optimisation features. Read more here: macOS Sierra new features and release date. Or watch the discussion video:
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: WatchOS 3
watchOS, the operating system that runs on the Apple Watch, is moving forwards at a searing pace, with its third full version unveiled at WWDC little more than a year after the device first went on sale. watchOS 3 adds a new app dock, intelligently predicts which apps you're likely to use at a given time so it can launch them more quickly, and introduces a range of fitness features for users in wheelchairs. Read more here: watchOS 3 new features. Or listen to our discussion about it:
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: tvOS
Last and probably least of Apple's four software platforms, tvOS nevertheless got a decent update at WWDC 2016. You can read all the gory details in our article New tvOS features, but we also discuss the new features in this video:
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Apple Pay
Alongside these headline developments, there will be a whole series of speedbumps along the way as Apple extends and refines its Apple Pay offering. We anticipate that Apple Pay will be accepted in a wider range of headline stores.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Apple Music
Apple Music - which is now available on Android - will inevitably expand.
With 15 million subscribers in 2016 but is it good enough to continue this momentum? Can it really compete with the likes of Spotify. As for Beats 1, we’re not convinced this is making the impact Apple hoped for, but the we probably aren’t the target market for it. We'd like to see more radio channels tuned to less trendy music choices.
There are also rumours that streaming on Apple Music could be enhanced, with high-resolution better quality audio for that service - up to 96kHz/24-bit, according to a report on Macotakara. Since the 3.5mm headphone jack is limited to CD quality sound this appears to back up the rumour that Apple will be ditching the 3.5mm headphone jack from its new iPhone, the rumour is that the Lighting port will take on this role, the alternative is sending the music via a wireless connection or Bluetooth, but we don’t think this would suffice. Incidentally, Apple released a Lightning connector audio specification in 2014.
Apple Music may also prove to be the one thing that keeps the iPod on the shelves in 2016. If you'd asked us what we thought of its chances at the close of 2014, we'd have said 'slim', but 2015 saw Apple deliver the first proper update to the iPod touch in three years, and it’s now providing another entry ramp for the firm’s £9.99 a month music subscription service. That alone means it makes sense to give it at least 12 months to prove itself. The same can’t necessarily be said of the nano and shuffle, which are each available in just one configuration and, without streaming abilities, offer no ongoing revenue source.
Apple Music saw a major redesign at WWDC 2016. We discuss the changes in this video:
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: Mergers & acquisitions
From time to time these suggestion-cum-predictions come true, as with Apple's acqusition of Beats in 2014, but it hardly needs stating that the company isn't in a hurry to divest itself of that cash cushion. Any merger & acqusition activity is likely to be comparatively conservative: rather than going for the big names that crop up in prediction articles like this one, Apple is far more likely to pick up smallish but promising firms on the way up and take their products in house - just as it did with Siri.
We do know of a few big deals that Apple has considered recently, though. The Financial Times reports that in May 2016 Apple sat down with Time Warner, one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, and spoke seriously about an acquisition deal. The deal never got beyond the exploratory phase, but this does strongly suggest that Apple is in the market for an acquisition that will give it a foothold in video content - something that would prove valuable in the event that its rumoured TV-streaming service comes to pass.
With Time Warner apparently out of the picture, many analysts believe that the next target could be Netflix, but we're still in the realm of the mega-deal, so don't bet your live savings on the deal happening.
On 22 August Fast Company reported that Apple had made an intriguing new acquisition: Gliimpse, a startup that enables users to collect and collate personal health data. It's not known at this point how much the acqusition cost Apple, but the company has confirmed the deal, albeit with its usual boilerplate statement that it "buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and generally [does] not discuss [its] purpose or plans".
Gliimpse was created in response to the bureaucratic difficulties in the US related to health documentation: the lack of an overarching authority or standardised system makes it exceptionally difficult for patients to access and usefully analyse their own data. And this makes it an obvious fit with Apple's recent health-related announcements. With the launch of HealthKit and CareKit, the company intends to revolutionise the health and medical care sector, and has a track record of providing umbrella services - in music, fitness and mobile software most successfully - that make complex markets easier for consumers to approach.
Related fact: one of Gliimpse's founders, Anil Sethi, started his career at Apple in the 1980s.
At the start of August 2016, Apple acquired a Seattle artificial intelligence company named Turi, according to a report by GeekWire. The site's sources peg the deal at approximately $200m, although both Apple and Turi have declined to comment on the matter.
Turi's specialities, artificial intelligence and machine learning, are hot right now and the acquisition represents Apple's way into an increasingly crucial area of the tech sector. Google is big on artificial intelligence, as are Facebook and Amazon, but Apple itself has discussed the subject in numerous recent product launches.
iOS's QuickType keyboard uses artificial intelligence to predict what you're trying to type; iOS also uses it to suggest apps it reckons you're likely to use and contacts you'll want to speak to, and the new automated album creation tool in Photos uses deep learning techniques to analyse faces, places and objects and create coherent compositions. watchOS 3's Instant Apps feature is dependent on being able to predict which apps you'll want to use next.
But Apple's products are only going to get smarter over the coming years, as Turi's tech is integrated into the portfolio.
Apple's Tuplejump acquisition
Further to it buying Turi, Apple followed up the next month, September 2016, by buying Tuplejump. Like Turi, it is a machine learning company that allows better data management for businesses. According to TechCrunch, Apple's interest in the acquisition was down to Tuplejump's focus on open source ways of applying machine learning and analytics to big data.
This again points to Apple's increasing interest in improving its artificial intelligence products such as Siri.
Apple predictions for 2016 & 2017: But don't expect…
The Apple Car, which is almost certainly going to happen, just not in 2016. Apple is said to have 1,000 developers working on the so-called Project Titan, and to have set up various different front companies, including Faraday Futures and Sixty Eight Research. We'd love to see it on the roads in 2017, but industry chatter suggests 2020 is a more likely date. If they're right, it might not be worth holding back on an interim upgrade to your existing run-around next year. And if you were hoping for an actual television set from Apple it's time to give up on that idea too.
We won't see an Apple car this year, but you can expect the rumours to continue to appear.
Additional reporting by Karen Haslam. Read on to find out what our predictions were for 2015...