Did Apple change the world with the launch of the new iPhones this week? Or did Tim Cook and his team make the smallest changes possible to inch forward the capabilities of the iOS powered smartphones so the money would keep rolling in?
Let’s be clear, the triple-play of the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X are not going to be failures. I still expect Apple’s annual sales to be around the 205 to 210 million handset mark. Sales will remain steady, the faithful will upgrade for another product cycle and everyone stays quietly inside the walled garden of the Apple Store. No risks are taken, the money keeps coming in, and everything is as predictable as cherry pie. In terms of numbers, revenue, and a return for shareholders the three new iPhones are exactly what is required.
I just wish there was more vision and bravery, rather than safety-first business decisions.
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre to launch the new iPhone range (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
What is genuinely new in the iPhone 8 and the iPhone 8 Plus handsets? The addition of wireless charging (and the resulting use of a glass back because “physics”) is the biggest change to the iOS handsets. As regular readers of my columns will know, I’m a big believer in wireless charging and I’m glad that Apple has decided to work with the Qi standard (as well as its own ‘extension’ due in 2018). But it’s only new to iOS, smartphones running Android, Windows 10, Windows Phone and even WebOS have all been using wireless charging for years.
There are tweaks to the screen to allow true tone, new lighting effects for portrait images (they’re not filters, insisted Apple’s team from the stage), and the yearly bump up in chip speeds with the A11 ‘Bionic’ and increased storage options.
In a sense, Apple has performed the minimum viable upgrade to the iPhone 7 family with the iPhone 8. It’s enough to keep existing Apple users comfortable with rolling over their monthly payments to Apple (or their carrier) to get a slightly better handset, but there’s nothing here that will attract new consumers to the platform.
The new iPhone 8, iPhone X and iPhone 8S are displayed during an Apple special event (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Above the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus, Apple decided to bring in a new ‘Pro’ handset that is confusingly called iPhone Ten, but pronounced iPhone X. Being outside of the normal iterative handset update means Apple could set the price point where it wanted to, and chose to pass the psychological barrier of $1000 (plus tax).
On the face of it, the iPhone X is everything that the iPhone 8 updates were not. Here was the handset that had presentation time spent on it, here was the handset which was going to change the future, here was the beneficiary of Apple’s truckload of superlatives.
Yet the whole package again feels a little flat. Much has been made of the switch to an OLED screen. Yes the bezels have been shrunk by Apple, but they are not invisible by any stretch of the imagination. In percentage terms the Note 8 still has more screen on display than the iPhone X. Neither is OLED screen new technology – Apple is after all sourcing it from Samsung and the South Korean company has been happily outfitting its handsets with OLED screens at higher resolutions than Apples iPhone X for a number of years.
The user interface around the screen, from the various gestures required to the two different ways of displaying the status bar, all speak to a loss of a draconian controller over the iOS UI. It’s getting messy, haphazard, and someone needs to remind Apple of the Zen of Palm and how it is still vitally important when designing software.
The other feature was facial recognition. Here, finally, I believe Apple has something. The new sensors that cut awkwardly into the OLED screen allow Apple to conduct a 3D topographical scan of a small area. In the first instance this is used to scan and recognize the face of the user for biometric recognition.
Looking around the internet today the utility of facial recognition is not being talked about, instead there are basic questions about the interface. Apple talked about some scenarios on stage, but ‘showing’ rather than ’telling’ would have not only answered points about hats, beards, and showing the iPhone a picture, but made for a much better presentation that instilled confidence.
The scanners can also be accessed by developers, as witnessed by the animated emoji shown on stage. With a world of rich of possibilities, Apple could have talked about greater AR experiences, about being lifted into games and digital spaces, or shown some real ‘gee whiz’ applications with real world use and practicality.
Instead Apple decided to have its audience of cheerleaders applaud an animated poop.
Just read that sentence again. Apple’s staff decided that the best use of stage time was that demo.
Apple has always talked a good game during launch events about looking towards the future, revolutionary technology and delivering unique experiences to consumers. This week was no different.
Step back from Apple’s script and it becomes a little bit easier to focus on the relative merits of Apple’s hardware compared to the leading Android handsets. Android handsets have more power, higher specifications, and have been earlier to market with new technology. On the other side of the OS argument, Apple continues to draw a benefit from being able to code the operating system to hardware in a way that is impossible with Android’s wide base of hardware support.
But Apple is not using that advantage to push the narrative forward or to change what it means to be a smartphone. It has decided to diminish the impact of AR on the smartphone and to refine the ideas of other manufacturers. It has decided to move its hardware forward by the smallest possible amount to maximise revenue and ensure that the faithful continue to upgrade their handsets and stay on the iPhone path.
Apple has decided that it does not want to define the future. Instead it is happy to make the safest of updates, roll the new iPhones in glitter and keep taking your money.
Now read more about the expensive gamble inside the iPhone 8…
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