Why iOS 18 Could Be a Bigger Deal Than the iPhone 16

Apple’s annual software upgrades are always a big deal in the tech world. But that’s truer than ever in 2024 as Apple is expected to sprinkle more AI into its upcoming iOS 18 software update, according to multiple reports from Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman

Apple is rarely first when it comes to emerging technologies. It still hasn’t launched a foldable phone, for example, and it only released its first mixed-reality headset in 2024 — almost a decade after the original Oculus Rift arrived. But iOS 18 could provide an early glimpse into Apple’s take on generative AI, underscoring the immediate and widespread impact the technology has already made in our everyday lives.  

It’s no exaggeration to say generative AI has created waves in the tech sector, prompting companies like Google and Microsoft to catch up to the seemingly overnight success of OpenAI’s ChatGPT. More than 100 million generative AI smartphones, or smartphones that run native AI models and use AI to create content, are expected to ship in 2024, according to Counterpoint Research. A survey from McKinsey & Company illustrates generative AI’s broader reach beyond smartphones, saying that one-third of respondents are using the technology regularly in their organizations for business purposes. 

Read more: Best iPhone in 2024

Apple has been noticeably absent from the generative AI race. But now that Samsung and Google have teamed up to bring features powered by the technology like Circle to Search to Android phones, there’s been more curiosity about what’s in store for iPhones. 

Apple never discusses products before it’s ready to announce them. However, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently teased that the company has big plans regarding generative AI. “Let me just say that, I think there’s a huge opportunity for Apple with GenAI and AI,” he said during the company’s most recent earnings call, according to a transcript from finance website Seeking Alpha

We don’t know what that will look like just yet. But there’s a compelling case to be made that it could be more exciting than the iPhone 16

AI in iOS 18

Siri on iOS 17

In iOS 17, you no longer need to say “Hey Siri” to trigger Siri, and you can ask Siri for back-to-back requests. For example, you could say something like “Siri, get me directions to the gym and play my gym playlist.”

Nelson Aguilar/CNET

Apple’s iOS 18 update is expected to be a significant upgrade over iOS 17, according to Bloomberg. And that’s largely because of AI. 

Bloomberg’s report suggests Apple’s upcoming iPhone and iPad software updates will be filled with new AI features, potentially making it one of the biggest updates in years. Apple’s software engineering team has reportedly been told to create as many AI features as possible for the new software.

It’s unclear which specific features Apple could be working on for iOS 18. But Bloomberg mentions some other areas Apple has reportedly been exploring, such as a more advanced Spotlight search tool and auto-generated playlists in Apple Music. The Information and Bloomberg have also reported that Apple is working on a more sophisticated version of Siri. 

Existing phones from Samsung and Google have already begun to incorporate generative AI, perhaps providing a hint at what we’ll see from Apple. Samsung’s Galaxy S24 series and Google’s Pixel 8 phones have tools for erasing or moving objects in photos and can generate new scenery to fill the space left behind. They also have a feature called Circle to Search, which lets you launch a Google search for almost anything on screen just by circling it. Samsung’s new phones can also translate phone calls into a different language in real time.

Apple could take a similar approach, but there’s no way to know for sure until it publicly announces the new software. 

A bigger upgrade than the iPhone 16

iPhone 15 Pro Max iPhone 15 Pro Max

The iPhone 15 Pro Max

James Martin/CNET

The iPhone 16 could be a minor upgrade over the iPhone 15 if rumors and reports turn out to be true, strengthening the argument that iOS 18 will be the iPhone update to watch this year. 

Among the biggest expected changes are the presence of a new dedicated button for capturing video, according to Bloomberg, and a tetraprism telephoto lens on iPhone 16 Pro, as TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reports. (Apple currently only includes this type of lens on the larger iPhone 15 Pro Max). Apple’s next iPhones will likely have a new processor, with analyst Jeff Pu predicting all four models will have a new A18 chip, according to MacRumors. The iPhone 16 Pro and Pro Max could also have slightly larger screens, says another MacRumors report. 

Those sound like relatively incremental changes, which would line up with reporting from Bloomberg’s Gurman, who said last year that there won’t be any major hardware upgrades on Apple’s 2024 iPhones.

That could be reason enough to believe that iOS 18, with its expected AI improvements, will be more exciting than the iPhone 16. But there’s a bigger point to be made about the role of software versus hardware. While it’s true that one can’t work without the other, it’s the software that serves as your primary method of interaction. 

Major software shifts have the potential to completely change how we use our phones — for better or for worse. Remember when Apple made it possible to move Safari’s search bar in iOS 15? Or what about the customizable lock screen that arrived with iOS 16? These may seem like small changes, but they can have a big impact on how you use your phone. 

Apple typically releases its new iPhone software for older phones too, meaning iOS 18’s new features will be used more widely than whatever new tech Apple introduces with the iPhone 16. (Although, there’s a chance some of Apple’s new AI features could end up being exclusive to the iPhone 16 since they may require a new chip capable of more advanced on-device processing.)  

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features You Should Definitely Know About

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Regardless, it’s that notion of changing how we interact with our phones that makes me so interested in Apple’s future AI plans. When I reviewed the Galaxy S24 Ultra in January, it felt like the first time in a while that I had something meaningfully new to evaluate that went beyond iterative camera improvements, brighter screens and refreshed designs. 

Unlike with most smartphone reviews, I found myself making phone calls in different languages, translating text messages and circling appetizing dishes in my Instagram feed to search for recipes through Google — all things that I’m not used to doing on my phone. 

I’m not saying Samsung and Google’s AI features are monumental enough to justify upgrading your phone. But what I’ve seen so far feels like the beginning of what could be a very interesting direction for smartphones that may eventually lead to more intelligent interfaces than what’s available today. And with iOS 18, we may get a peek at what that looks like for the iPhone. 

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