Our expectations about how fast personal technology should evolve have come totally unglued from reality.
That was all I could think this week as I surveyed media and consumer commentary about the iPhone 5S and the iPhone 5C, which Apple unveiled at a Sept. 10 press event.
From any reasonable point of view, these new smartphones, like their most advanced Android and Windows counterparts, are true marvels of innovation. If a time-tunnel opened up in your pocket and your iPhone slipped back to the year 2003, armies would destroy one another to possess it, and scientists would dissect it as carefully as if it were an alien artifact.
But the collective reaction to Apple’s announcement was a big “meh.” No sooner had Elvis Costello thrummed his last chord on stage in Cupertino than legions of kvetchers took to the Internet, lamenting the absence of this or that pet feature.
The iPhone 5C, billed as the new bargain model at $99, should be even cheaper, many critics said. The iPhone 5S, the high-end model, should have a larger screen, others complained. Apple should have boosted the memory to 128 gigabytes instead of leaving it at 64. Giving the phone a 64-bit processor was pointless marketing fluff, since developers haven’t written many applications to exploit it. There’s no notification LED, no near-field communications chip, no alternative way to install software. There’s still no simultaneous voice and data on Verizon and Sprint (though you’d think that was the carriers’ problem, not Apple’s?). The phone ought to have a low-power, always-on clock display. The new built-in fingerprint scanner isn’t really all that secure. Or worse: it’s too secure, and thieves will chop off your finger to access your phone. And my favorite quibble: it shouldn’t have been called the 5S.
As I read the complaints, I couldn’t help thinking back to a 2009 appearance by comedian Louis CK on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy,” CK observed, referring to that tone of cynical, jaded exasperation you hear whenever somebody complains about how long it’s taking for a cellular call to go through, or how the inflight Wi-Fi on their plane isn’t working. “We live in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots,” CK continued.
Indeed. In that department, my peers at CNET deserve some kind of prize. No fewer than three separate CNET writers posted withering takedowns of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) after the Tuesday event. “The least exciting and most disappointing iPhone update yet…Maybe we’ve seen just about everything a smartphone can do, and small, incremental improvements are all that’s left,” wrote Rick Broida. “It would be terrific if Apple took the lead again on design and creating drool-worthy products,” said Roger Cheng. “The magic’s gone out of the smartphone business, leaving companies and their advocates to argue about slightly faster processors, more megapixels, or slightly improved battery life,” wrote executive editor Charles Cooper. “That’s progress, but it’s the equivalent of three yards and a cloud of dust…the status quo is boring me to tears.”
I’ve never heard so much ungrateful whining in my life. Perhaps Messrs. Broida, Cheng, and Cooper would prefer to go back to their 2006-era flip phones?
Look, I’m no Apple apologist or fanboy. I use a lot of Apple products, but I’ve spent plenty of time criticizing the company and its devices and software. I’d never try to equate this week’s product refresh with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which was the last time we saw a true step change in mobile computing. And I think Apple embarrasses itself a little every time it describes its latest iPhone, iPad, or MacBook as “incredible,” “magical,” or “revolutionary.”
But let’s look at the facts. Everyone’s been clamoring for a less expensive version of the iPhone. Apple obliged with the 5C, which comes in a polycarbonate case, in a variety of pretty colors, and costs $100 less than the 5S. Otherwise, it’s identical to the current iPhone 5, which is a very good phone. Enough said.
As for the iPhone 5S, it’s hard to see what more Apple designers could have done to improve the current generation of iPhones without simply jumping to the next numbered release. (We won’t see an iPhone 6 until the fall of 2014, if Apple follows its historical pattern.)
—The fingerprint scanner is a truly nifty piece of engineering. There’s no question it will improve security for users who can’t be bothered to set up a numerical passcode.
—The M7 motion coprocessor, a new addition, will coordinate data from the phone’s accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass in a more energy-efficient way. That means developers can build apps that monitor and analyze a user’s movements in a more continuous and fine-grained manner. (Whether or not an “iWatch” is in the works at Apple, the M7 represents Apple’s bid to package the iPhone itself as a wearable fitness tracker.)
—Apple has also made some nice improvements to the built-in iSight camera, which now has larger imaging pixels and a wider aperture. That allows the camera to gather more light, which should improve dynamic range and performance in low-light situations. On the software side, the iPhone 5S’s image signal processor can do tricks such as dynamic tone mapping that you don’t see even on high-end DSLRs. My iPhone 5 is already my default camera, and to me the iSight improvements are the single biggest reason I might want to upgrade to a 5S.
—With its new A7 chip, the iPhone 5S is the first handheld device with a 64-bit processor. That’s partly about enabling faster graphics processing, which makes room for things like the new slo-mo feature. But it also future-proofs the device and means that developers can more easily write applications that will work on both iOS devices and Macs (which are already 64-bit).
Incremental improvements? Yes, but meaningful ones that should help to influence the only two groups that matter: 1) New smartphone buyers who are trying to decide between Android, Windows, and iOS, who’ll see that Apple is still on the bleeding edge in most hardware and software areas, and 2) iPhone 4 and 4S owners whose wireless contracts prevented them from upgrading to the iPhone 5, and who needed a good reason to stick with Apple.
And when, exactly, did we start expecting anything more than that? Why all the garment-rending when Apple fails to deliver something “drool-worthy”?
Apple, like NASA, is the victim of its own successes. Most companies would feel lucky to have introduced just one category-defining innovation before they fade from history. Apple has come up with five—the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Just because the last two came more or less back-to-back in 2007 and 2010 doesn’t mean Apple will ever be able to pull off something like that again. As I argued back in June, it’s bad math to expect even one more world-changing advance from the company, especially now that it’s operating without its powerful, mercurial, maverick founder.
Apple is still the world’s best product-design company, and its lineage of premium phones, tablets, and computers will continue for many years. Let’s be glad that they’re so competent, meticulous, and user-centric, and that they’re headquartered here in America. Let’s stop acting as if they owe us something. And let’s remember that the gadgets in our pockets are already way better than anything from Dick Tracy, James Bond, or Star Trek. I call that amazing, and it should make everybody happy.
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