So here we are – another keynote, another apparent disappointment.
Only it shouldn’t have been – not to anyone who has paid remotely any attention to the comings and goings of Apple as a company, in general, and specifically its product release strategies, over the past decade or so.
That Apple does not comment on future product releases has been etched in stone since Steve Jobs took over in the late 90s. One of the dangerous consequences of Apple’s growing size and success due to Jobs’ (and now Tim Cook’s) stewardship has been the credence given to rumours and speculation that were once upon a time taken with the bag of salt they deserved. Now they have created a significant ‘sub-industry’ of analysts, rumour-mongers, tech pundits and enterprising industrial spies, all of whom benefit themselves from filling the void left by Apple in creating wild expectation (that finds itself priced into the market) and fostering bitter disappointment.
So to today’s news: an expectation had been circling around the world that Apple would release a redesigned, teardrop shaped “iPhone 5”, with an enlarged 4 inch (or larger screen) and an ovoid touch-sensitive home button. Chinese case companies had already manufactured cases for such a device (based on ‘reports’ from the aforementioned sub-industry) and some US case companies were so desperate to maintain a competitive edge that they started manufacturing large quantities of cases based on similar information – which, to reiterate, did not come from Apple itself. This expectation was also fanned by the emergence of competing Android handsets (such as the Samsung Galaxy S II) with larger screens that the iPhone’s trademark 3.5 inch screen; many in the sub-industry, and indeed many potential customers, hoped that Apple would match or beat Samsung in this regard.
As is obvious, this did not come to pass. These expectations were not realistic, for no other reason than the fact that they were refuted by others within the sub-industry who could not find any evidence in Apple’s manufacturing chain to support such claims (and indeed, evidence to the contrary). However, neither were they realistic from a simple appraisal of Apple’s well-known, certifiably successful, commercial strategy.
In the first instance, Apple does not respond to the competition – it sets its own bar. That may be a strange thing to say, when superficially it appears that they are currently lagging on certain features (such as screen size, as noted above). However, every single one of Apple’s flagship product releases could be similarly criticised (original iPhone had no apps or 3G, iPhone 3G had no copy & paste, iPhone 3GS and iPad had no multitasking, iPhone 4 and iPad 2 had weak notifications). On the other hand, many of these deficiencies were remedied through software support over three years, something that many of its competitors have not been able to match (even in the Android market). In addition, Apple focuses on integrating such features into its operating environment in a way that matches the overall experience of using its integrated hardware and software. That may not be enough for feature-seekers who demand the latest and greatest (the soonest), but it means that the larger portion of the market is able to take advantage of a mature and considered implementation.
Accordingly, although a larger screen may be what the competition is doing (and, by extension, what some customers want Apple to follow), Apple can’t simply slap on the larger screen Samsung is using and is unlikely to deliver one until they are satisfied it works as it should. Firstly, there is the issue of consistent resolution – in order for its operating system and third-party applications to be displayed consistently across its iPod Touch / iPhone / iPad products, Apple has maintained either the same or double the screen resolution for each. Introducing a slightly-larger screen size would either require a non-standard resolution (thereby destroying the uniform experience across products, which would be very unlikely), or reduced pixel density. Given the fanfare regarding the introduction of the iPhone 4’s ‘retina display’ last year, it would again appear unlikely that Apple would sacrifice pixel density simply for the benefit of a larger screen.
Further, there is the issue of whether a bigger screen is actually a good or a bad thing – after years of shrinking handsets, there was significant consternation of the size of the original iPhone when it was introduced in 2007. Almost five years later, some people are claiming that a bigger screen and a bigger device are a better thing – which demonstrates that the issue of screen size ultimately comes down to personal taste. If a larger screen is that important to you right now, then perhaps the iPhone is not for you – and the Galaxy S II is certainly a worthy device that might meet your needs. On the other hand, if you can wait, you may be rewarded if and when such an option does come along.
The other major source for disappointment has been the lack of a new design. I read one comment suggesting that Apple should fire their design team for not having done any work over the past year. I forgive that person for not appreciating the job description of an industrial designer, or what was required to bring the new internals of the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 4’s frame. I also forgive them for not appreciating the fact that said design team is more likely currently working away on any number of potential designs for the iPhone 6, which will need to be settled in the coming months in order to be ready for testing and production prior to next year’s release. Given the quality of Jony Ive’s product designs over the years (supported by a selection of his designs being featured at MoMA), one can understand why the corollary of Apple supporting a longer period for developing better designs (rather than churning out black plastic boxes year-after-year) is some longevity so that Apple could commercialise them over a longer period. If this weren’t obvious from Apple’s already well-established two-year design cycle for the iPhone, it should have been clear from their commitment to each new redesign of their Mac products, starting from the iconic iMac. Indeed, with Jony Ive and Tim Cook at the helm, Apple may very well find a way to implement a larger screen at some point in the future without sacrificing pixel density or consistent resolution – but rest assured that it will finally see the light of day once they can get it just right.
In addition, there have been some minor quibbles about the lack of 4G / LTE and such. This may push some early adopters of such technology away, but ultimately Apple will bring these features on board when the market for them matures (which you’d be hard pressed to say is now, but could very well be next year). I can’t imagine many people dying in a ditch over this though.
Having examined the complaints, let’s look at what Apple has actually improved in the iPhone 4S. While it was widely expected, bringing the dual-core A5 processor to the iPhone (a frame smaller than that of the GS II) is still an impressive feat, and brings with it iPad 2-like performance – not that performance has been anything anyone with an iPhone 4 has been complaining about. However, the additional power is a foundation for Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant application that Apple recently acquired and has refined for the iPhone. Having not seen this in action, other than in the promotional videos, I don’t think I can really say much about it; however, while some might scoff at the idea of talking to their phones, I can certainly see circumstances in which it will come in handy – particularly when using a Bluetooth handsfree kit while driving (and possibly for cheating in pub trivia competitions).
There is also an improved 8 megapixel camera, which can shoot 1080p video and has a video stabilisation feature. While it’s true that a dedicated camera with a proper lens will always be better than whatever can be crammed into a phone, they say the best camera is the one you have with you – and more often than not, that is your phone. Given the fact that iPhone photos dominate Flickr, it seems that this rings true for many who simply wish to point and shoot. Improvements to the camera are always a welcome thing, and the large size of the iPhone’s sensor has made photos taken with it compare well against basic point and shoot cameras and other smart phones (particularly when in the hands of someone who can take a decent photo - no amount of technology can make up for that).
On top of all of this is the introduction of iOS 5 (which will also benefit existing iPhone 4 and 3GS, iPad and recent iPod Touch owners). Most notably, this brings with it a new notification system which addresses one of the ongoing complaints about the iPhone. Without belabouring the many other refinements in iOS 5, it reinforces my earlier point – that the true life-cycle of an Apple product is over the three years during which it is supported and updated by Apple. An iPhone 3GS bought in 2009 will get many of the benefits of iOS 5, while an iPhone 4S bought today will reap the benefits of similar software advances through to 2014. At the end of the day, many users may find this far more valuable than replacing their hardware every year because of a new design, or a new set of features that may or may not be refined enough for them to use regularly or effectively.
Finally, there is the issue of price.* I won’t lie, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a small downward inflection on pricing, given the introduction of the 64GB model. I fear that Apple has discovered that 8GB is actually more than ample at the moment for most smartphone users, hence the base model iPhone 4 remains priced at the entry-level 3GS’s $99 while the iPhone 4S models slot into the same prices for the similarly-sized iPhone 4’s with the 64GB slotted in at the high-end $399 spot. This is a bit of a departure from past practice during the evolutionary part of the cycle, as the iPhone 3GS kept the iPhone 3G’s price points while doubling the capacity. It’s unfortunate that a 16GB iPhone 4S exists and pushes the price of the other models up, but that is an unfortunate consequence of the continuing demand for iPhones in the market. Perhaps, if nothing else, today’s disappointment might result in some downward pressure on pricing, but I suspect that we won’t see such effects until close to the release of the iPhone 6 this time next year.
(*) I am using US-subsidised prices for the purpose of comparing Apple’s standard offering over the years. In doing so, I assume that the reader is aware that these prices require a two-year contract, and should not be used as a point of comparison against local Australian prices, which are for outright contract-free purchases and subject to GST as well as the ever-varying fortunes of the Australian dollar.
Speaking of which, here’s a set of predictions for free – in late 2012, Apple will release an iPhone 6, which will have a larger retina display, an A6 processor (whatever March-April demonstrates that to be), an LTE antenna and a thinner, new, design. You heard it here first. ;)