4 things the last 4 years of iPhone tell us about its future

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Apple’s iPhone is four years old today. It’s a sign of its success that I can barely remember a time when I didn’t use one, or when Apple wasn’t involved in the smartphone market, even though it wasn’t all that long ago. I don’t see the iPhone falling from prominence anytime soon, but here’s what I do see in the device’s future.

LTE support likely in 2012

If the history of the iPhone tells us anything, it’s that Apple prioritizes splashy tech feature additions according to consumer demand. 3G connectivity wasn’t a priority for the iPhone until 3G access became widely available in the U.S., and recent evidence suggests that a whole whack of customers still aren’t really that concerned about connection speed. LTE may have a lot of exciting potential, but a study by market research firm Morpace found that for the most part, it’s still not having a huge impact on the buying decisions of smartphone shoppers.

That said, Verizon’s anticipated coverage map for the end of 2011 actually quite closely resembles the state of AT&T’s 3G coverage as of 2008, when the iPhone 3G was introduced. At least in terms of potential reach, Apple’s track record would then indicate that we’ll see 4G support arrive in 2012.

NFC still likely a couple of years out

While Google is being aggressive with its near-field communication (NFC) rollout, complete with a new Wallet product that will let users pay for real-world goods with NFC-equipped devices, Apple has yet to make any indication that it will move into that space. Like LTE, NFC will likely have to prove itself as a desirable asset for consumers before Apple gets its feet wet. It’ll let Google do the hard work of evangelizing, working out the kinks and winning over user acceptance for a technology that could set off alarm bells for security-conscious consumers, and then swoop in with a more refined product that delivers exactly what users find appealing about NFC, without any of the growing pains. I think this tech is still at least a year or two away from finding its feet, so don’t expect NFC in the iPhone’s immediate future.

The only camera you need

Apple’s progress with the iPhone’s camera has been remarkable. It went from being what seemed like mostly an afterthought, to a selling feature that helped propel the iPhone to the top of Flickr’s most popular cameras list . Now that the iPhone camera will be able to automatically populate galleries across devices in iOS 5, and can be used quickly and with a hardware shutter button, it should become an even better replacement for traditional point-and-shoots. I think Apple is now fully aware that having the best camera available on a smartphone is a definite selling feature, even if it took a few years to figure that out. Expect to see solid software additions and hardware updates in models to come, especially when it comes to low-light photography, where major improvements would give Apple the biggest advantage over its smartphone competitors.

An entertainment center

The iPhone is already an entertainment hub, but Apple has shown it can become even more of one. AirPlay is a key technology for Apple and for iOS, and I don’t think it’s even fully formed as of yet. The iPad 2’s AirPlay HD Mirroring comes close to showing off the true extent of what AirPlay is capable of, but given freer rein, developers could eventually leverage the technology to make interactive two-screen wireless viewing activities a reality. While they may start out as iPad-exclusive experiences, I have no doubt that Apple will eventually leverage faster processors and more computing power in future iPhone iterations to make it a great addition to any home entertainment center, too. Look for that to start in earnest with an A5-based iPhone that should arrive in fall.

What else do you think is in store for the cornerstone of Apple’s mobile business?

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