One of the seemingly most controversial aspects of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) flagship iPhone X smartphone is the cutout at the top of the display. That cutout is necessary for Apple to have a display that covers the whole front face of the device while still keeping the front-facing camera subsystem and including the necessary technology to enable the iPhone X's depth-sensing capability.
While some argue that this cutout -- commonly referred to as a "notch" -- gives the device a unique visual signature, others seemingly can't stand it. Daring Fireball's John Gruber, a well respected voice when it comes to all things Apple, called it "ungainly and unnatural."
For those who don't like the notch, publication ETNews seems to have some good news.
Apple's trying to shrink the notch
ETNews claims that Apple aims to improve the depth-sensing hardware in its 2019 iPhones compared to what it introduced in the 2017 iPhone X. The implication is that Apple will reuse the same basic depth-sensing camera hardware in this year's upcoming iPhones (Apple is rumored to be planning three new iPhones, each equipped with such a depth-sensing camera).
As part of this improvement, Apple is reportedly trying to combine the depth-sensing technology with the front-facing camera module itself. Presumably, this combination would lead to a smaller physical footprint for the camera technology that's housed within the notch, allowing Apple to reduce the size of the notch in the 2019 iPhones.
If Apple is successful in pulling that off, the screen-to-body ratios -- the ratio of display area to non-display area on the front of a smartphone -- of the 2019 iPhones would increase. For some customers, a higher screen-to-body ratio is, indeed, a selling point.
Additionally, smartphone customers generally seem to respond well to obvious visual changes and enhancements compared to prior-generation phones. Indeed, one of the main complaints around Apple's iPhone 6s, iPhone 7, and iPhone 8 series devices was that they all looked very similar to the iPhone 6 series devices launched in the fall of 2014.
Ultimately, building products targeted at consumers is a balancing act that requires a careful trade-off of aesthetics, functionality, and cost. The prettiest phone in the world is useless if it doesn't provide strong functionality and it'd be downright inaccessible if it's priced too high thanks to extreme manufacturing costs.
If Apple can bring a new version of its front-facing camera subsystem that tightly couples the traditional image sensor and the depth-sensing capabilities in a smaller, more integrated package, then that'd allow for an aesthetic improvement in future iPhones.
The real trick, though, will be to achieve this increased integration while also improving both the capabilities of the traditional front-facing camera sensor as well as the depth-sensing technology. Making it even more challenging, Apple will need to do this while also keeping the manufacturing costs of the integrated module reasonable.
Fortunately, Apple has a well-financed army of some of the best hardware and software engineers in the world working on the problem. I wouldn't bet against the team at Apple figuring out how to integrate all that functionality into a single module and reducing the size of the notch in its 2019 iPhone lineup.