Since January 2007, when Apple first unveiled the iPhone, I've covered close to two dozen Apple media events. Yesterday, it was the iPhone 5's turn to step up to the plate.
Perhaps it's a symptom of my age, but I'm showing signs of Apple announcement fatigue. No matter what Apple announces, it's becoming harder and harder for me to conjure up enthusiasm. As Yogi Berra said, "It's déjà vu all over again."
Even the articles covering yesterday's announcements have a sameness to them. Inevitably, there are pundits lamenting about how underwhelmed or (the word-that-can-not-be written) "disap-xxxx-ted" they were with the iPhone 5. In response, there are the journalists who counter that the new iPhone significantly advances what was already the best smartphone on the market — and how customers will buy a gazillion of them, proving the critics wrong. Take out the number "5" and substitute "4S" — and the columns would be indistinguishable from what was written last year.
As for me, I plan to buy an iPhone 5 (as much for business reasons as personal use). But I don't feel the eagerness and urgency to do so that I have had in the past. There is no single feature or two, such as Retina display or Siri, that has managed to capture my imagination and attention.
To be clear, I have not yet had the chance to physically hold an iPhone 5. So my impressions are all based on what I saw at the Apple event and on Apple's online PR. This admittedly limits my judgment, which may change significantly (for better or worse) in a week or so. Also, my evaluation doesn't consider any features of iOS 6 that also run on an iPhone 4S, as I don't need to upgrade to an iPhone 5 to get these features.
To crystallize my reaction, I found it helpful to group the new features of the iPhone 5 into three categories: innovative, integrative or imitative. Actually, for the middle term, "incremental" would be more accurate than "integrative," but the latter fits better with the sound of the other two terms.
This category includes items that truly qualify for the adjective "new." Ideally, they should be unmatched by anything available in competing products. Here are my top four:
Touch display. For me, the biggest technological innovation in the iPhone 5 is one that you can't directly see: the "integrated touch technology" of the Retina display. As Apple states: "Instead of a separate layer of touch electrodes between display pixels, the pixels do double duty — acting as touch-sensing electrodes while displaying the image at the same time. With one less layer between you and what you see on iPhone 5, you experience more clarity than ever before."
Lightning connector. This new connector and matching cable replaces the old 30-pin dock. While it has the advantage of being smaller and supporting a reversible plug-in, this is not a great advance by itself. However, by allowing the iPhone to be lighter, thinner and potentially hold more internal hardware components, it is significant.
On the downside, I'm not looking forward to buying a bunch of adapters (that are more expensive than the Lightning cable itself!). I also wish it was USB 3, instead of USB 2.
EarPods. Apple claims these new audio peripherals were three years in development. If they just stay in my ear reliably, they will be a big improvement over the old ones. Dave Hamilton, who got to try them out, informs me that they are not any better than the old earbuds in noisy environments. For truly isolated sound, you want ones that create a seal in your ear. But that's by design. Isolated sound is not the function of the EarPods.
Every smartphone comes with something to stick in your ears; still, I believe the EarPods qualify as an innovative change for the iPhone.
Video/Still photography. While most of the improvements to the iPhone's camera are incremental, the ability to take still photos at the same time you are recording video is new and a welcome innovation. [Update 9/14: As I am now aware, this feature has already been available on certain Android phones.]
Most of what's considered new about the iPhone 5 falls into this broad middle category. These are improvements that incrementally build upon the already existing features of the iPhone 4S. There are too many for me to list them all here. The three that most caught my attention are:
4" screen. Of course. This is the most immediately obvious change in the iPhone 5. I'm probably in a minority, but I have been more than satisfied with a 3.5" screen. I wasn't clamoring for a bigger one. Still, if the larger display provides expanded real estate without making the phone feel too bulky, I'll welcome it.
Actually, I might prefer if Apple offered multiple display sizes in its latest iPhone hardware, rather than a "one size fits all" approach (just as you can get different display sizes for MacBooks and iMacs). Perhaps that will happen someday, if Apple sees a demand for the option. But not today.
LTE. I'm excited about this one, assuming I can get a workable LTE connection in most locations where I travel. If so, it should dramatically increase the speed with which webpages load and other Internet-based apps work. I look forward to the day when I depend on 3G about as much as I now depend on EDGE.
A6 processor. The new A6 processor offers greater speed than its A5 predecessor. This means that just about everything should run faster than it did before. But the true importance of greater speed is that it potentially allows you to do things that were previously impossible. At some point, speed crosses a solid line — like the first time computers became fast enough to allow video. It remains to be seen what lines may be crossed with the A6, but game enhancements are one likely area.
By imitative, I mean features that are a direct response to innovations that first appeared on competing smartphones.
I suppose one could put the increased display size or LTE support in this category. I don't. LTE was coming to the iPhone regardless of what the competition did. It was just a question of when Apple was ready to do it. Increased display size may qualify as a response to how Apple saw the market shifting with other products, but it is too general a characteristic to qualify as "imitation."
Basically, there is not much that Apple imitates when it comes to upgrading the iPhone. It doesn't have to do so, as it is the design leader that everyone else tries to imitate.
With the iPhone 5's increased display size and LTE support, competing smartphones lose two of their biggest competitive advantages. In most other ways, the iPhone 5 matches or excels beyond the competition. You can debate whether the iPhone's camera should have more megapixels or whether the omission of NFC support is important, but that's about it.
On the other hand, I don't find much about the iPhone 5 that is truly new and compelling. But hardware specs are not the total story. With the improvements coming in iOS 6 and iTunes 11, the iPhone's ecosystem remains outstanding. Android devices can only dream of matching this.
An iPhone media event may no longer hold the excitement it once did (it certainly does not for me). The innovations may not be as great as they once were (perhaps an inevitable consequence of a maturing product). Android devices are still likely to retain their dominance in overall market share (although I believe it will begin to shrink).
Even so, I expect the iPhone 5 to hang on to the crown for the single best, most popular, and most profitable smartphone in the world. Apple doesn't have to knock socks off each year to retain that crown. It's sufficient to just stay ahead of the competition. That it does. And that should be more than enough for the iPhone 5 to qualify as a huge success.
At yesterday's media event, Apple also announced a major update to the iPhone's sibling: the iPod touch. Two observations:
Specs. For whatever reason, Apple doesn't want the touch to match the specs of the iPhone. The new touch sports the same 4" display as the iPhone 5. However, it retains the A5 instead of the A6 processor. It has a 5MP instead of an 8MP iSight camera. And it still has no GPS or 3G/LTE options (even though these are available in the phone-less iPad).
Price. Apple did not drop the price of the iPod touch. As I wrote last week, I still wonder how well this will fit in with the pricing of the iPad mini, expected to be announced next month.
[Note: For my brief overview of the new iPod nano, introduced yesterday, check out: Apple's crazy iPod nano.]