Apple tapped a growing trend to enable smartphones for satellite connectivity, revealing its latest iPhones will offer an emergency messaging service alongside being its first to completely drop a SIM slot in favour of a virtual module, albeit only on US models.

The Emergency SOS feature on the iPhone 14 lets users send short, low bandwidth text messages to emergency responders when there are clear skies and the phone is pointed in the direction of a satellite.

Apple designed and built custom components and specific software to connect iPhone 14 antennas to satellites. The phones show where birds are located so users can establish the link.

It also created a custom short text compression algorithm to reduce the average size of messages by a factor of three and enable messages to be sent in around 15 seconds in ideal conditions.

Due to limited bandwidth, Apple worked with emergency experts to develop a list of the most common responses, while an existing app can be used to share the location of the device.

The SOS service will launch in the US and Canada in November: Apple plans to offer it for free for two years.

Globalstar stated in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing it is providing the satellite connectivity.

Tim Hatt, head of research and consulting at GSMA Intelligence, told Mobile World Live the satellite service is not a “big bang” for Apple, but rather a useful service which laid the groundwork for deeper plays in the future.

“Ultimately it is the mobile operators, not Apple, who will determine how quickly satellite connectivity scales into the mainstream, so this is more a validation of all the activity in satellite the last two or three years rather than something new.”

The devices
During an unveiling event, Apple showed iPhone 14 models including a version with a 6.1-inch display and a Plus model with a 6.7-inch display. Both have improved battery life compared with iPhone 13 and come in five colours.

The devices feature the A15 processor used in the iPhone 13 Pro, but with an 18 per cent improvement in the processing speed of the five-core GPU. They also feature an updated internal design for better thermal performance and Super Retina XDR OLEDs offering 1200 nits of peak HDR brightness.

Apple priced iPhone 14 from $799 with availability on 15 September, with the iPhone 14 Plus priced from $899 and shipments due from 7 October.

Pro and Pro Max versions of the latest device run Apple’s A16 Bionic processor and are priced $999 and $1,099, respectively. Both feature a 48MP main camera with quad-pixel sensor and an enhanced image pipeline which improves low-light photos.

During the event, Apple CEO Tim Cook also unveiled a fresh smartwatch range, including the Apple Watch Series 8 and Watch Ultra for athletes.

The wearables and iPhone 14 phones offer a crash detection feature which automatically notifies emergency services and contacts.

Also showcased was Apple’s second generation AirPods Pro, which provide twice the noise cancellation of its first-generation earbuds.