Apple's iPhone family. Image credit: Apple. 

Even though the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 7/7 Plus have yet to be unveiled, KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reportedly released a research note over the weekend (via MacRumors) shedding some light on what the iDevice maker has planned for its 2017 flagship iPhone.

The flagship phone will reportedly pack a 5.8-inch AMOLED display -- a shift away from the liquid crystal displays that Apple has used in all of its iPhones to date. The display is also expected to be curved, which Kuo says will allow the smartphone to fit in a footprint that might be even smaller than that of the current generation 5.5-inch iPhone 6s Plus.

But that's not all. In addition to a curved display, Apple is reportedly looking to eschew the aluminum casings the hallmark of iPhone's look and feel since the 2012 release of the iPhone 5. Instead, Apple is said to be evaluating plastic, ceramic, and glass for the back of the phone; Kuo is confident that Apple will ultimately go with glass.

After reading a summary of Kuo's note, it's hard to shake off the feeling that the iDevice maker has now assumed the role of a follower rather than a leader -- at least when it comes to smartphone industrial design and, in some cases, technology.

Curved AMOLED display? Samsung has been doing it for a while
In late 2014, Apple arch-rival Samsung (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) released the Galaxy Note 4 Edge, a variant of its Galaxy Note 4 "phablet" with one side of the display curved into the body. It was essentially a gimmick, but Samsung refined it with the Galaxy S6 Edge, with the display curving into both sides of the phone.

Samsung also ran with this concept with the recently released Galaxy S7 Edge.

If Apple implements this in a flagship iPhone in (presumably late) 2017, it will "catch up" to what Samsung has been fielding into the marketplace since early 2015.

Curved glass? Ceramic? Also been done
The Galaxy S7 also features a metal frame with a glass back. Xiaomi, a China-based smartphone vendor, recently announced a new family of flagship devices as well -- the Mi5 series. The two lower-tier models feature metal frames and glass backs similar to the Galaxy S7, while the top tier Mi5 (known as the Mi5 Pro) actually comes with a ceramic back.

In other words, the big "materials change" that Apple is apparently looking to implement has, once again, already been done by another, much smaller competitor to the iDevice maker.

Apple must lead, not follow
Apple is obviously the largest and most profitable smartphone maker out there. It has high customer loyalty rates and easily the highest blended average selling prices in the smartphone industry. From a business perspective, the company is still solidly in the lead.

However, during the iPhone 6s/6s Plus cycle, a number of "cracks" in the armor have really begun to show in the company's competitive positioning. It no longer fields phones with best in class displays, its cameras are good, but no longer the "gold standard" that they once were.

"Friend of Apple" Walt Mossberg recent penned a column in which he points out the myriad ways in which Apple needs to catch up to the competition. 

To make matters worse, Apple releases flagship phones on merely a yearly cadence, while the competition puts out flagship devices at a much more rapid clip.

I can't shake the feeling that Apple is getting complacent. Perhaps the fact that the company is set to experience its very first year-over-year decline in iPhone sales will serve as the rude wake-up call that it really seems to need.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.