It can easily be argued that Apple has been a leader in the smartphone market since the very first day the original iPhone was announced. The phone didn’t even go on sale for another half a year following its unveiling in January 2007, but it became instantly apparent that Apple had just flipped the smartphone industry on its head. Touchscreens still weren’t terribly common on smartphones at the time, and most phones that had touchscreens still had buttons or keyboards. They also all used horrible resistive technology, so touch input wasn’t reliable unless the user had a stylus. If smartphones of that era sound archaic, it’s because they were. But then Apple came along with the iPhone and completely changed the game.

Once the iPhone’s popularity began exploding, rival companies in the industry were left with two options. Copy the iPhone, or die. Google and its Android vendor partners chose the first option — those who have been around long enough will recall that Android was being developed as a horrible BlackBerry ripoff, but Google wisely went back to the drawing board and modeled the OS after Apple’s iPhone. Other companies like Nokia, Microsoft, and RIM (BlackBerry) laughed at the iPhone and viewed it as a passing fad. That, of course, is why none of those companies make smartphones anymore. Over the next decade, every other smartphone company in the industry would go on to copy not just the functionality of Apple’s iOS platform, but the various physical designs of the iPhone as well. Fast-forward to 2020, however, and the tide has most certainly turned.

It’s no secret that Android phone makers spent year and years shamelessly copying Apple’s iPhone designs. Samsung was among the worst offenders, having literally written the book on how to copy the iPhone pixel by pixel. That’s why Samsung and Apple went to war in courts around the world, and those legal battles ended up being a terrific thing for the industry. Why? Because they pushed Samsung and other Android phone makers to develop designs of their own instead of just ripping off every new iPhone model that Apple releases.

Remember how bad things go in 2017? If not, check out this collection of 20 embarrassing iPhone X copycats all in one image. It’s laughable and pathetic, but now, it’s history. Most of the companies that spent as long as a decade copying Apple now have unique smartphone designs of their own. Just look at Samsung’s most recent smartphones. They’re stunning!

That’s where things get interesting. With the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus that were released in 2014, Apple began a new design cycle for its iPhone lineup. Instead of refreshing the iPhone’s design every other year, the company decided to begin reusing iPhone designs for three years at a time. That was fine for a while, but then in 2018 something interesting happened: Android phone makers began to get MUCH better at smartphone design.

The industry began moving toward “all-screen” smartphone designs in 2016, and Apple’s notch design on the iPhone X was the star of the show in 2017. But it’s not 2017 anymore. Every noteworthy Android phone company has now moved past the notch that Apple made famous on the iPhone X, and they have developed numerous exciting new all-screen designs that are much better. Apple’s iPhones, however, still look exactly the same thanks to the company’s new three-year design cycle.

Now it’s 2020 and Apple’s iPhone is about to get a long-overdue refresh. The iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Pro Max are rumored to feature a stunning new design that, according to top Apple insider Ming-Chi Kuo, will be a modernization of the iPhone 5 design everyone loved so much. They’ll feature flat steel all the way around the edges along with a new camera setup on the back. Around front, however, Apple’s new iPhone 12 series is still expected to feature a giant notch bitten out of the display. Apple uses an advanced 3D facial recognition system on its iPhones, and it appears as though the sensors needed for that system cannot yet be shrunken down small enough to fit in a narrow bezel.

Just a few short years ago, no one would have expected Apple to fall behind when it comes to smartphone design. After all, the company spent more than a decade having its iPhone designs copied by every single one of its rivals. In 2020, however, the rest of the industry has moved on, but it appears as though Apple is still trapped in the past. While Android phones use nifty new designs involving pop-up mechanisms or hole-punch cameras, Apple’s new iPhone 12 series will seemingly still feature a display design that’s straight out of 2017.

If you’re an Apple fan, you had better hope that three-year iPhone design cycle is broken soon, because three more years with a big notch will feel like an eternity when Android phones start coming out with front-facing cameras that are completely hidden under active areas of the display.

Zach Epstein has worked in and around ICT for more than 15 years, first in marketing and business development with two private telcos, then as a writer and editor covering business news, consumer electronics and telecommunications. Zach’s work has been quoted by countless top news publications in the US and around the world. He was also recently named one of the world's top-10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes, as well as one of Inc. Magazine's top-30 Internet of Things experts.