This story is part of, CNET’s collection of news, tips and advice around Apple’s most popular product.
Back in 2000, the story of Chuck Noland gripped the country. He was traveling on an airplane for work one Christmas Eve when it hit a terrible storm and crashed into the ocean. He was the sole survivor. For four years, he was stuck, alone, on an island. If he’d had, he may have been able to signal for help from a satellite orbiting many miles above.
Noland is a fictional character, played by Tom Hanks in the hit survival movie Cast Away. But the iPhone 14 is real.
Over the past couple weeks, Apple has released its newest iPhones and Apple Watches, all built with a series of features to make people feel safer. This year, the devices are designed to track as you’reor doing more mundane tasks like looking for a friend in a crowd or driving home from school. Among the features are and a way to even when you don’t have cell service.
“These products have become essential in our lives,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said when announcing the devices earlier this month. As if to emphasize the point, company executives repeated the word “essential” nearly a dozen times while showing off its newest products. “They’re always with you, useful wherever and whenever you need them, and are designed to work seamlessly together on their own.”
These features may seem extreme — how often do you go exploring desolate deserts? — but they add to a sense of trust Apple’s hoping to forge. At a time when much of our collective faith in the tech industry has been shaken by, and , the very idea that Apple wants us to trust it even more may seem silly. And Apple’s marketing around saving our lives may come off as overwrought.
If we’re not reckoning with the tech industry’s power in our lives, we’re debating whether we’ve become too dependent on it all. It’s gotten so bad that some people regularly go on “digital detoxes,” seeking out vacation spots beyond the signals of cellular carriers, in hopes ofof modern life.
But the iPhone maker is charting a path by leaning on its health and safety features, alongside a growing list of privacy enhancements so effective they’ve frustrated advertisers, law enforcement and other tech companies.
“Apple’s developing this concept of personal safety, and bringing it to a whole new level,” said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. He added that Apple’s competitors will likely try to replicate Apple’s safety features too, but the tech giant’s larger approach to security, privacy and now personal safety will help it stand out. “Fundamentally, they’re saying, ‘Look, we’re going to look out for you, we’ve got your back.'”
Though Apple’s still adding new safety features to its devices, it’s been focused on these ideas for many years.
In 2017, Apple added an optional feature to the Apple Watch to detect abnormal heartbeats, something that many customers have since saidbefore a potential heart attack or stroke. In 2018, the company added fall detection for the Apple Watch, which calls emergency contacts and the authorities if you don’t respond . That too has gone on to save lives.
While new features like crash detection and satellite calls for help may be designed for Apple’s latest iPhone, the company appears to be trying to add safety technology to older devices as well. With its free iOS 16 software update for iPhones, Apple is adding Safety Check to help domestic violence victims. It’s also adding Lockdown Mode, to protect the owner from a potential hacking attack.
It doesn’t take much to imagine how Apple’s new satellite functionality will help people in an emergency. There are people like Aaron Ralston, a hiker and rock climber who in 2003 got stuck for days in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park without a phone or any other way to call for help.
What will set Apple apart, industry watchers say, is that creating these technologies required complex interplay of software, sensors and infrastructure like enough satellites in the sky for it to work.
Apple said it worked with first responders to develop its emergency satellite feature, asking users questions about whether they’ve been hurt and how badly to more efficiently relay information to people getting help. It also had to build relay stations to call 911 in places where emergency operators don’t accept text messages.
“It took years to make this vision a reality through game changing hardware software and infrastructure innovation,” Ashley Williams, a manager of satellite modeling and simulation at Apple, said when announcing the new functionality.
Though no other tech companies currently offer a similar feature,have announced plans to offer similar technologies in the next couple years as well. Verizon has a similar partnership with Amazon’s Project Kuiper. Analysts say more are likely on the way.
As Apple passes, one of the toughest challenges it faces is how to . Sure, the company can make the device work faster, and improves the camera each year, but what more can it do?
Longtime Apple watchers say this year’s Apple Watch and iPhone may hold the key. “They’re trying to figure out the real issues that real people are struggling with,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.
“Some of the features were for everybody, and some of them were for very specific people,” she added. But they all revolve around solving longstanding problems, like what to do when cellular service isn’t working, in addition to basic stuff like making the devices less likely to break when we drop them. “We’re in a world where people just want to go out the door with their phone or their watch and not worry about it.”