iOS 18 could be a game changer for the iPhone — here's why

ios 18
(Image credit: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/Shutterstock)

It'll be nearly a year before iOS 18 lands on our iPhones, but already, Apple's next iPhone software update sounds like it'll be a big deal. In fact, outside of the Apple Vision Pro headset that marks Apple's entry into the mixed reality market, you could make the case that iOS 18 will be the most significant thing to come out of Cupertino in 2024.

That's because iOS 18 is rumored to mark Apple's first real push into artificial intelligence, with reports claiming the software update will add generative AI to your iPhone. Specifically, iOS 18 could introduce an Apple-designed chatbot to the iPhone — think of it as a more advanced Siri, capable of carrying our complex tasks with simple verbal commands.

Details remain sparse about Apple's exact plans. The company doesn't comment on future products, and iOS 18 is still in the early stages of internal development. The earliest we're likely to even see a preview of the software update is next June when Apple traditionally holds its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) and previews the year's big software releases for the iPhone, iPad, Mac and Apple Watch.

Still, anticipation is building for iOS 18, which could be unlike any iPhone software update we've seen for a long time. Here's why people are already talking about iOS 18 this far in advance of the software's debut.

iOS 18: A bigger update than usual

iOS 14.5 review

iOS 18 may be the most significant overhaul of the iPhone software since iOS 14 (pictured here) (Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It may not seem like it when you rattle off the changes in recent updates like iOS 17 and iOS 16, but the past few versions of Apple's iPhone software have been relatively minor upgrades. For all the marquee changes in iOS 17 — we're talking things like StandBy Mode, Live Voicemail and Contact Posters — they're really just enhancements to features and apps that were already present. Even newcomers like the Journal app arriving in the iOS 17.2 update aren't ushering in sweeping changes to how you use your iPhone.

For that, you'd have to go back to 2020's iOS 14 release, which gave you the ability to add widgets to the home screen and reorganized the software on your phone into an App Library. It was an update that introduced new ways of interacting with your iPhone.

Based on the limited number of iOS 18 leaks we've heard so far, Apple's upcoming iOS release sounds like it's going for something similar. Yes, your iPhone has some features that incorporate AI, but not to the extent of what early rumors are predicting about iOS 18's feature set.

Take Siri, which has been a part of the iPhone since iOS 5. In Apple's most recent release, Siri gained the ability to field back-to-back requests without having to re-activate the virtual assistant. As an example, you can ask Siri to remind you about an appointment tomorrow, immediately following up that request with a question about the forecast.

Now contrast that with some of the reports we've heard about iOS 18's use of AI. A story in The Information suggests that Apple's implementation of AI will let you trigger multi-step tasks with just the sound of your voice. In an example given in that article, you would be able to use a simple voice command to get Siri to turn a set of recently taken photos into a GIF and then text them to one of your contacts — a task that's a lot more complicated than asking Siri back-to-back questions.

Apple playing AI catch-up

There's also a lot of interest in iOS 18 and its potential AI-powered features because of the perception — not an unfair one — that Apple's AI efforts are behind what rival tech firms are doing.

In 2023 alone, Microsoft has teamed up with OpenAI to incorporate ChatGPT into Bing and Edge searches; it also added the Copilot AI assistant to Windows 11. Google launched an AI chatbot of its own, Bard, with plans to integrate that generative AI tool into its Google Assistant.

Samsung, Apple's biggest rival in the world of smartphones, just talked up its own AI efforts. It's planning on bringing Galaxy AI to future smartphones — it's almost certain to debut on next year's Galaxy S24 models — with the phone maker promising "universal intelligence on your phone as you’ve never seen it before." We're expecting the S24 models to be able to compose emails, summarize documents and provide on-device translation, not to mention all the AI-powered camera and photo processing capabilities we're likely to see.

So how does Apple respond to all this? Reports claim the company is on track to spend $1 billion annually in research and development on generative AI. iOS 18 could be our first chance to see the fruits of those efforts.

iOS 18 pushing more iPhone upgrades

iPhone 16 Pro Concept Video Science & Knowledge

iPhone 16 Pro concept design (Image credit: Science & Knowledge/YouTube)

It's also worth paying attention to iOS 18 because Apple could be counting on the software update to be a big driver of iPhone upgrades next year, at least according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman. The iPhone 16 hardware "won’t have any major advances next year," Gurman writes, so AI features added to the operating system could be one way in which Apple drums up interest in its latest smartphones.

To that end, iPhone 16 models may be uniquely positioned for on-device AI-driven features, according to some reports. For older phones capable of running iOS 18, those AI features may be cloud-based instead. That would mean faster AI performance for iPhone 16 models powerful enough to support on-device AI, among other benefits.

It's not unusual for an iOS update to restrict some of its features to select iPhone models. In the current iOS 17 update, for example, you need an iPhone 12 or later to be able to take advantage of a new FaceTime feature in which hand gestures trigger on-screen effects. But it's a little bit of the ordinary for features to be restricted to just one generation of iPhones, which is what could be happening with on-device AI tasks in iOS 18.

iOS 18 outlook

There's a lot of time between now and iOS 18's likely sneak preview at next summer's WWDC, so more concrete details about Apple's AI plans could emerge in the interim. But even at this early stage, it's apparent that iOS 18 won't be a run-of-the-mill update for your iPhone. And that, understandably, has people eager to find out what new powers iOS 18 will have to offer.

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Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.