In 2017, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) released three new iPhones. The most exciting of the bunch, the iPhone X, represented the first radical redesign of the iPhone form factor in years. It's sleek, sports a high screen-to-body ratio, and includes some nifty facial-recognition technology not found on any other smartphone.
The iPhone X, however, isn't for everyone. The device starts at $999 for the base model with 64GB of storage and goes all the way to $1,149 for the version with 256GB of storage.
To address more cost-sensitive buyers, Apple also introduced the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. These phones included most of the internal technologies found in the iPhone X (e.g., A11 Bionic processor, upgraded wireless capabilities, wireless charging, and so on), but they retained the same basic form factors as their respective predecessors.
Although some may be tempted to think that Apple didn't totally revamp the form factors of the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus out of laziness, I don't think that's why.
Apple's backed into a corner
Apple has made it quite clear that it thinks the iPhone X form factor -- a full-face display with a cutout at the top to accommodate the 3D sensing TrueDepth camera -- represents the future of the iPhone.
In fact, many credible leaks and reports have already said that Apple is planning a lower-cost iPhone, presumably a successor to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, with a 6.1-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) that has a TrueDepth camera and a cutout in the display to accommodate it for 2018.
So if that's the future of the iPhone, any form factor change that Apple could've introduced with the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus would've been a short-lived change.
Moreover, it's hard to imagine what changes Apple could've done while maintaining the same screen sizes and resolutions. Any changes in either would create extra work for developers -- work that they're not going to want to do for a one-off form factor.
Apple seems to value symmetry in its designs, so shrinking the top and bottom bezels would've been difficult since Apple needs ample space on the bottom bezel to accommodate the current Touch ID/home button implementation.
Apple could've potentially shrunken the side bezels of the devices to slightly improve screen-to-body ratio compared with the iPhone 6, 6s, and 7 Plus generation of devices. However, I think Apple's designers consciously and carefully chose those side bezel sizes and hasn't shrunken them because that's the vision that the designers had in mind for those products.
So, in a nutshell, Apple had two choices: Let the familiar iPhone form factor ride again, or move the entire lineup to the same form factor as the iPhone X.
One big problem with moving the lower-cost iPhone to the iPhone X form factor is that this would've dramatically increased the need for the TrueDepth camera systems that are currently only used in the iPhone X. Considering the numerous reports that supply of components for this camera system held back iPhone X production and contributed to delayed availability of the device, going all-in on the TrueDepth camera would've been very risky for Apple.
In addition, Apple would've had to bet on a relatively new type of display technology -- likely Japan Display's new FULL ACTIVE liquid crystal displays (LCDs) -- for such a device. This would've increased product risk and probably led to increased manufacturing costs as well.
The iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus represent relatively low-risk stopgap products on the way to a future where all iPhones have 3D sensing capabilities and full-face displays. Thanks to upgraded internals, cameras, and even the addition of the company's True Tone display technology, the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus are solid products that will do their jobs well over the next year.