Why Apple’s Critics are Wrong

September 13, 2012

7:02 pm

Unfairly, pundits may point toward Apple’s special event yesterday as a sign that a post-Steve Jobs Apple has lost its magic. The company used a special presentation in San Francisco to introduce the iPhone 5, to announce an updated iTunes, to show its revamped iPod lineup, and to highlight the previously announced features of iOS 6. True, the iPhone 5 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, step forward. But a lackluster response to its release is probably due to the muted physical changes to the device, which is basically a longer, thinner iPhone 4S (and iPhone 4). However, the conservative external updates both hide the significant internal improvements, as well as pay homage to the intimate nature of a phone.

The iPhone 5 is unarguably the finest phone that Apple has ever made. It has LTE support, a two-times faster A6 chip, and a better display, all while maintaining the same battery life and price of the iPhone 4S. Those eligible to upgrade should, and those looking to jump into the Apple phone market ought look no further.

However, many bloggers and technical writers will dismiss the iPhone 5, and many consumers will see it as a warmed-over iPhone 4, due to its look. Steve Jobs conditioned us to expect fabulously sexy hardware designs coming out every year, while a simple evolutionary design deflates our excitement. Realistically, though, the dramatically changing designs Jobs released seemingly without end aren’t appropriate for the iPhone.

The truly radical designs that Jobs’s Apple created were the new product categories that Apple entered: the music player, the smartphone, and the tablet, but that was three over nearly a decade. There were also some revolutionary designs within categories, such as the creation of the iMac, but the largest design changes within categories were driven by technology changes: the iMac original to lampshade to current-ish form occurred with LCD ubiquity; the iPod mini to nano with widespread SSD usage. There have been no huge technology changes that would radically change the external design of the iPhone. There are different displays, but nothing so clearly superior, such as the switch from CRT tubes to LCD panels, or from spinning platters to solid state.

Also, the designer of a computer has significantly more leeway than the designer of a phone, because a phone is so much more intimate than a Mac or an iPad. Carrying it in your pocket, holding it for hours a day, and staring at it on the metro while trying to ignore humanity, many of us interact with no technology more than our phones, so design without reason detracts more acutely than a translucent rainbow flower panel on the back of a computer. The conservative evolution of the iPhone design also suggests that Apple believes in their form, which today is largely the same as the original iPhone. Apple feels no compunction about reversing itself from a bad design (see third-generation iPod shuffle). The notable exception to Apple’s confidence in its previous designs was the additional screen real estate introduced today, which increased the height of the iPhone screen from 960 pixels to 1136 pixels.

All of this talk about the design of the phone points to the other reason why spectators might have been unimpressed with the Apple announcement, which is that the hardware hogs the limelight in keynotes. Apple’s excellent iOS, which can reasonably be seen as the real reason consumers should choose Apple over an Android device, did get an overview in today’s event, but everything had previously been announced at WWDC, and rightly so. External developers need to make sure their software works with Apple’s new iOS, and that trumps Apple’s secrecy every time (at least when you have 700,000 apps in your app store).

The iPod and the iTunes announcements, though welcome, seemed like they were there to round out a full press conference. “The iPhone is the show, but we’d like you to stay for two hours.” The iTunes announcement shows that Apple is listening to its users’ complaints that iTunes is bloated and no longer has the laser-like focus of its other products. When the software comes out September 19, we’ll discover if Apple delivered the right medicine for the ailment.

The newly updated iPod nano had the possibility of stealing the show. At $149, the new iPod nano is a good value, with a new 2.5-inch screen, video playback, bluetooth, and fm radio. However, if Apple could have priced it at $99, I don’t think there would ever be another kid on a plane without one. As it stands, the iPod Touch remains the gateway drug of choice, especially with its new ability to run Siri.

Tim Cook and Phil Schiller are not Steve Jobs, of course. However, the iPhone 5 design is certainly not indicative of an Apple sliding into a state devoid of creativity. The iPhone 5 is an exceptional phone, the finest Apple has ever made, and uniquely suited to its task. Its conservative design shows Apple’s past successes, not any current failure.

This post was written by guest author Drew Ashcom. 

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