Why 'S year' iPhones are a bigger deal than they may seem

Like the iPhone 5s and 4s before it, the iPhone 6s introduces some brand-new features that will define Apple products for years to come.

Few things are more predictable than the iPhone upgrade schedule. Even before senior vice president of world wide marketing Phil Schiller and Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering Craig Federighi broke down everything new about the iPhone 6s toward the end of Wednesday’s “Hey Siri” event, we already knew what was coming (and it wasn’t because of 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman and his connected sources, either): Same design, new features.

Ever since the iPhone 3GS, Apple has used the year following a major iPhone redesign to focus mostly on internal improvements—things like the battery, processor, and camera to breathe another 12 months of life into a familiar enclosure. It’s become so predictable that rumor sites have all but stopped publishing anything to the contrary. For as long as the iPhone remains at the center of Apple’s universe, every model will have an “S” year, and if you’re looking for a radical design change, you’re just going to have to wait. But like the other “S” models that came before it, the iPhone 6s is much more than the sum of its improvements.

iphone6s 4color redfish pr print Apple

The iPhone 6s has much more going on for it than just a new color.

Essence of “S”

The iPhone 3GS was a risky gambit. At a time when its Android competitors were just beginning to figure out what made the iPhone tick, Apple opted for a somewhat muted model, keeping the same plastic design and simply adding a faster chip, more RAM, and a better camera. Where the previous year’s model had improved on the original iPhone in virtually every way, the 3GS was more of a dip than a splash.

But the iPhone 3GS wasn’t a stopgap release. It might have stood for speed, but the “S” was as multifaceted as the “i” in iOS, bringing the kind of advancements and technologies that took Apple’s handset to new levels of performance and efficiency. That first “S” model was a major step toward turning the iPhone from a mobile device into something greater, a veritable computer in our pocket that could do amazing things.

Even with the same design, Apple’s “S” model phones have always been game-changers in their own right—Siri on the 4s, Touch ID on the 5s—and the iPhone 6s continues that tradition. Where other smartphone manufacturers are trying to push the boundaries with bigger models every year, Apple uses its “S” models to innovate inwardly, focusing its efforts on carving out a strong foundation for the future of its mobile ecosystem and letting the user experience trump the design.

iphone 6s quick actions Apple

Quick Actions is just one of many new features of the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus.

Sneak peek

The addition of 3D Touch means more to the future of iOS devices that the iPhone 6’s larger screen did, adding a new dimension to multi-touch and opening up the screen in bold new ways. Much like you could see the future implications during the Siri demo, watching Federighi show off 3D Touch only scratched the surface of what it will be able to do.

On the Apple Watch and 2015 MacBook, Force Touch is a neat feature that adds a layer of convenience, eliminating keystrokes and mouse clicks on the Mac and compensating for the lack of screen real estate on the Watch. But while everyone assumed it would be a “me, too” feature that offered little in the way of excitement, the implementation on the iPhone is wildly more innovative, to the point where Apple felt the need to rename it. 3D Touch isn’t just a gimmick to distinguish the iPhone 6s from its predecessor—it’s an entirely new input method that puts all phones before it on a short path to becoming obsolete.



Much like Siri (which was the 4s’ marquee feature) has matured into a technology powerful enough to control virtually every interface we use, in a few short years 3D Touch will be as transformative as multi-touch was, expanding the capabilities of iOS beyond today’s boundaries and limitations. It’s the kind of feature that seems so obvious, so simple in retrospect that using a device that doesn’t have it (like, say, the iPhone 6) will seem foreign and antiquated. It’s not just a reason to upgrade, it’s a leap forward in the evolution of iOS.

Second coming

While its competitors are still scurrying to out-innovate Apple with curved screens and wireless charging, Apple is sticking to a very regimented schedule of iteration. And while the likes of Samsung and Motorola may think the “S” year offers a chance to jump ahead in an off year, it’s actually the sequel models that have defined the iPhone and set the course for future revisions.

In the new iPhone 6s commercial, Apple takes a crack at the perception that just because the external design hasn’t changed it’s not worth upgrading. New designs are always exciting, and just like everybody else, I would love for Apple to release a new one every 12 months, but as the commercial shows, Apple’s “S” phones can’t be reduced to a better camera and speedier processor. They’re the real innovators, and while the iPhone 6s might not have stolen the show yesterday, you can bet that 3D Touch will be at the forefront of everything that’s coming next.

So, when everyone is gearing up next September to see what the iPhone 7 will look like, Apple will already be thinking of how it will become even better. Even though it’s dressed in the same boring clothes as last year.

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