Investing in the iPhone X: The Stocks Behind the Curtain
On Tuesday this week, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) held its much-anticipated annual product event inside the newly opened Steve Jobs Theater at its campus in Cupertino, California.
This year’s event naturally carried some added level of excitement, as it marked the 10th anniversary of Apple’s original iPhone reveal in 2007. The tech industry waited with bated breath to see what the company would have in store.
The event dramatically kicked off with the familiar voice of Steve Jobs, who remarked from somewhere out in the technological ether, "One of the ways... people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out."
This, of course, was exactly why everyone was attending the event: in expectation that Apple was about to reveal something wonderful — the promise of the “next big thing” in consumer tech.
But as has been the case with Apple’s product events over the last decade, the main reveal of the day was yet another line of iPhones. At face value it was all a bit boring, yet not really.
The event was telegraphed throughout the day on Twitter, as consumers lamented and quipped over the apparent lack of innovation. The prevailing notion was that the iPhone 8 was virtually identical to the iPhone 7, which, too, was once criticized for being all too similar to its predecessor.
Another Year, Another iPhone
The disappointment of these consumers isn’t unwarranted. Apple once had the gall to strut out on stage and talk about how much “courage” it took to kill the headphone jack. These events have become rife with so much hyperbole and hype that they’ve become nearly impossible to live up to.
HBO’s Silicon Valley parody series has embodied the hubris of these kinds of events quite well through its constant mockery of the phrase “Making the world a better place.”
Of course, the reality is that Apple’s management, investors, and Board of Directors don’t care as much about making the world a better place as they commonly let on. Their goal is to sell products and make money.
But being honest doesn’t sell as well as rhetorical glitter. So every year, Tim Cook gets up on stage and pretends that the latest version of the iPhone is the most incredible thing this world have ever seen — a total game changer — even if the world has already seen it nine times before.
Most of us see through the ruse by now, but ultimately it doesn’t matter — the iPhone has become a status symbol, so people will buy the latest version regardless.
Still, as much fun as it may be to knock on Apple for its overly hyped product events, the company actually did take an important step this year in its inevitable graduation from the iPhone. It implemented new technology that will be vital in the transition to what actually is the “next big thing” in consumer tech.
The iPhone X: Paving the Way for Future Tech
The big reveal this year at Cupertino was undoubtedly Apple’s brand new iPhone model: the iPhone X.
Unlike the iPhone 8 Plus, which is effectively just a resized iPhone 8, the iPhone X comes with added hardware and features that allow it to stand on its own.
Visually speaking, the iPhone X sticks out with an edge-to-edge OLED screen with a better contrast ratio than the iPhone 8 models. It also has no home button, which means no Touch ID.
Instead of sensing a user’s fingerprint, the iPhone X uses another method of biometric identification: facial recognition, or, as Apple has aptly branded it, “Face ID.”
Apple’s new Face ID feature immediately comes off as a gimmick. Sure, it’s going to be convenient for your phone to automatically unlock when you pick it up, but is that really any better than putting your thumb on the home button?
If we’re to take Apple’s event at face value (no pun intended), the answer is no. During the iPhone X’s big reveal on Tuesday, the product actually failed to unlock when Apple’s chief software engineer Craig Federighi first gave it a go.
Federighi did have a backup device on hand that worked just fine, and Apple later gave a believable explanation for the mishap: prior to the demo, staffers had been touching the device, causing it to enter a heightened security mode after failing to verify their faces.
Regardless, it goes to show that Face ID isn’t perfect. If failures to verify can happen in such a controlled environment, they are going to happen in the real world. Not to mention there are plenty of uncertainties surrounding how the software will function with heavy makeup, sunglasses, etc.
The question that immediately comes to mind, then, is why would Apple go through so much trouble to develop Face ID? After all, the technology requires a sophisticated array of 3D sensors and a front-facing camera to operate — a setup that doesn’t come cheap.
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The Technology Behind Face ID
The first reason most analysts will point to for Face ID is that Apple wants to free up the screen space. You can’t have an edge-to-edge iPhone if you have a physical home button up front, so it makes at least some sense.
That said, Apple could have taken other routes to keep Touch ID on the iPhone X. It could have moved the fingerprint sensor to the back of the phone, as Google does with its Pixel phone. Jointly, it could have hidden a fingerprint sensor underneath the screen on the front.
Either of these options would have been less expensive and less of a technological hurdle, but Apple was clearly determined to implement Face ID. Why?
The answer to that question is Touch ID was a dead end. The technology behind it has just one function: to verify a user, and that’s really it.
Face ID, though, is an entirely different story. The 3D-sensing technology behind it is an asset for Apple’s future product development. Face ID is just a single feature made possible by that tech, a distraction from what Apple is really after.
Apple Preps the “iPhone Killer”
In recent years, Apple CEO Tim Cook has become increasingly vocal about his views and Apple’s ambitions regarding augmented reality (AR).
In speaking with The Independent in February, Cook likened AR to the smartphone, saying:
The smartphone is for everyone, we don't have to think the iPhone is about a certain demographic, or country or vertical market: it’s for everyone. I think AR is that big, it’s huge.
Apple isn’t just talking the talk here, either. The company recently debuted its augmented reality platform (ARKit) and is now implementing 3D-sensing hardware, which will be essential for high-performance mixed reality applications, in the iPhone X.
Of course, AR will always be limited on a phone due to the limited window it provides into an augmented world. It won’t be until we see a pair of mass-market glasses when we truly see this technology take off. For AR, field-of-view is everything.
This is probably why, as The Verge explains, Apple undersold AR during this week's event.
Showcasing “augmented reality” on a smartphone comes with a lot of baggage. The term seems simultaneously futuristic and obsolete: it could refer to the awkward AR gimmicks of early smartphones, high-tech glasses that people might not use for years, or a conflation of both. ARKit has a lot of potential uses, but many of them are still pretty silly, which sits uneasily alongside lofty rhetoric about the future of computing.
In other words, Apple is taking baby steps right now. It’s dipping its toes in the water and presumably building up the supply chain for 3D depth-sensing technology. The iPhone X, as far as investors should be concerned, is effectively a test bed for AR devices to come.
For those of you interested in learning more about the iPhone X and, more importantly, the 3D-sensing tech behind it, I’ll be breaking that all down in the latest issue of my monthly newsletter Technology and Opportunity. That includes the names and tickers of every public company supplying Apple’s 3D tech.
That issue is due out by the end of this weekend, so if you want to be among the first to read it, you’re invited to sign up for a free trial here.
Until next time,
Jason Stutman is Wealth Daily's senior technology analyst and editor of investment advisory newsletters Technology and Opportunity and Topline Trader. His strategy for building winning portfolios is simple: Buy the disruptor, sell the disrupted.
Covering the broad sector of technology and occasionally dabbling in the political sphere, Jason has written hundreds of articles spanning topics from consumer electronics and development stage biotechnology to political forecasting and social commentary.
Outside the office Jason is a lover of science fiction and the outdoors. He writes through the lens of a futurist, free market advocate, and fiscal conservative. Jason currently hails from Baltimore, Maryland, with roots in the great state of New York.
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