Apple showcased the iPhone 5 on Wednesday, and it came with everything the rumor mill predicted: a bigger screen, a new, faster A6 processor, and global LTE, along with a new “Lightning” connector cable, EarPods, and other incremental refinements. But you probably already know that. What strikes me a day or two later is how reaction to this sixth iPhone iteration is evoking a mild to severely underwhelmed sentiment that both the iPhone 4S and the new iPad engendered, but more pronounced. That is to say, pundits agree the iPhone 5 is undoubtedly the best iPhone, and arguably the best smartphone, ever made and the queues on September 21st will be epic. In fact analysts predict that Apple, with the iPhone 5, could make up a full half a percent of the entire U.S. GDP. But its latest iteration isn’t very sexy nor was the launch event exhilarating. The latest iOS device lacks anything wholly novel. Apple is actually playing some catch-up for the first time, as larger screens and LTE connectivity have been available on many smartphones for years. Fan-boys and haters aside, there is a general air of disappointment over the lack of the “just one more thing” bomb Steve Jobs used to drop in his keynotes, right before blowing our minds.
Evolution vs. revolution
It’s entirely true that the iPhone 5 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary upgrade, but perhaps that speaks more to our expectations than to any failing on Apple’s part. While no-one has been able to fill Jobs’ shoes as pitchman, and big events have taken odd permutations from his scripts including Wednesday’s surprise mini Foo Fighters concert, the real issue, it seems, is that we’ve reached a plateau industry-wide.
The notion of a single device being able to perform so many functions is no longer awe-inspiring; many of us have accepted smartphones as part – often a crucial part – of our day-to-day lives. That is a huge success for the industry, and one Apple spearheaded. But, until Google Glass, AR or some wearable or micro device comes along to shift the paradigm completely, I don’t see where there’s a lot of room for revolution in smartphones. Now is the time for taking what works today, and making it better, without jumping out too far ahead of mainstream technology with features users have no practical use for, even if they might drop our collective jaws. At least that is Apple’s supposed thinking in omitting an NFC virtual wallet in favour of a simpler rewards card Passbook. Phil Schiller told AllThingsD “Passbook does the kinds of things customers need today.”
Apple is following a long established pattern. They create something novel or reinvent something in a way that entices non-enterprise consumers into the tech sphere and then spend many years making smaller but no less important modifications. This continues to apply to their iMac and MacBook line of computers and to the iPod line of digital music players. We’re now at that point with the smartphone. That Apple turned these once geek-and-business-only items into general consumer must-haves highlights their incredible design and marketing teams and their trademark user-friendliness, but also Apple’s other great strength: a closed, seamless ecosystem.
And that gets us to the real issue – who should buy an iPhone 5? It’s a two-part question: should existing iPhone users upgrade and should those who have never owned an iPhone jump in now?
The most important consideration should no longer be hardware on its own. I think Apple makes the best of the current models, but a good case can be make for the Android-based Samsung Galaxy III and the new Windows 8 phones will likely offer the same core features, perhaps more or better. So the question to consider first is which of these companies are you tied to most. If you have an iPhone, iPad and Mac it’s a no-brainer, but if you plan to run a Windows 8 machine it may make more sense for you to hold out for their phones and slates. If you have your apps on an Android phone now, and use Google or Amazon’s music, video or e-book services, it may behove you to wait for what everyone else releases in time for holiday shopping.
The point is that the decision should be based less on who has the best camera or fastest processor, since variation is small in the best models, and more about who helps you shunt your content – be it work product or recreational – to all your devices, social networks and friends and who makes the best software to showcase the hardware. On that end, Apple, with iOS, is king. By maintaining control over everything from design to production to distribution, and by holding the only (legal) repository for iOS third-party apps, the company is still light years ahead of the competition. By extension they are the also the most exclusive. Amazon has a Kindle app for iPhone for example, but there is no way to access an iBook outside Apple’s environments.
That’s part of what keeps us coming back, eager for more. It’s also what draws new users in. Apple’s ecosystem is supremely focused on an enjoyable casual user experience. With iTunes finally getting a much-needed makeover, content discovery should also be much improved, and no platform has more content to discover. Still, the most exciting things mentioned at yesterday’s event were iOS 6 features that use the hardware advances brilliantly like the new Maps, video editing, Siri tweaks, Passbook, and – finally – email threads and attachments, and Facebook incorporation. Smooth integration of hardware and software is what Apple does best.
Who’s really considering buying a new iPhone?
Assuming those committed to Android and Microsoft devotees waiting for the Windows Phone 8 announcement aren’t seriously considering the iPhone 5, we’re left with those considering an upgrade and those just starting with smartphones.
Newcomers to the smartphone market:
Taking into account Apple’s unique ecosystem, even for those without Macs, (iTunes is fully Windows compatible) the iPhone makes the most sense for typical first-time buyers; especially those who held out for so long and are not “gadget people”. Android has so many operating systems and so many different phone manufacturers and models it’s just easier to walk into an Apple store or reseller and ask for an iPhone and know exactly what you’re getting. The options are refreshingly limited: you only have two colors, three levels of storage and three different models that are numbered and priced to indicate how close they are to the cutting-edge. The only reason not to buy an iPhone if you are part of this group is that they are priced considerably higher than most Android-based phones. With or without a contract the savings can be substantial.
iPhone 4 or older generation owners:
While Apple is still offering the iPhone 4, dropping the price to free with a two-year contract, it’s time to move up. The iSight camera upgrade to the 4S was substantial and now it’s a little better still. Coupled with the A6 processor, HD FaceTime, and yes, even Siri, the difference should be considerable, if not shocking, for you. If you have a model that predates the 4, your contract is likely up and it’s well past time to start enjoying video cameras, Retina displays and all the iOS 5/6 perks.
iPhone 4S owners:
For you this is a much tougher decision, but I’d advise holding off. The longer screen with an extra row of icons is nice, and the processor is faster, but with the most recent iPad still using the A5x and the 4S still for sale at $99 with contract and an A5, it’s unlikely that you’ll be shut out from more than a handful of apps, if any. The new panorama feature on the camera is nice, but for $800 or thereabouts, an app like Pano or 360 Panorama should suffice. The core camera optics and output resolution for stills and video is pretty much the same. EarPods look cool, but will be sold separately, and while LTE connection speeds sounds great, nationwide coverage is still spotty, and data consumption is greater and plans more costly. By next year 3G may well be a relic, but for now, in North America where cellular infrastructure lags, the speed boost is nice, but not necessary for typical users. The exception would be if you travel abroad frequently, as the new iPhone is a world phone, but that sub-sector makes up only a tiny fraction of iPhone owners. Also, sticking with the 4S means you have the advantage of being able to get another year’s worth of use out of your accessories, and finding new one at drastically reduced prices, with no need for adapters.
The Downside: Risks, Accessories and Apps
A caveat to those who have read this and are planning to line up or pre-order: remember the iPhone 4’s antenna? What about the light bleeds on the iPad 2? Being first to buy poses risks. No-one but a select few chosen by Apple have been able to test drive this puppy and while (by all appearances) they spent many hours in the drawing room, with so many small internal changes and such a small test-market it’s not hard to conceive of unanticipated hiccups.
Even if everything goes smoothly, there are still going to be things that drive iPhone 5 users – especially those who’ve had previous iPhone models – crazy. The new Lightning connector is somewhat revolutionary and I, for one, welcome it since I have to replace the 30-pin circa-2003 connector at least once every few months. They are poorly made, unwieldy, and slow. It would be ideal if Apple adopted the mini USB industry standard, but this is Apple we’re talking about. The new cable is purported to be much faster and certainly looks sturdier. Still, it instantly relegates a slew of docks, alarm clocks, chargers, car kits and other accessories useless. Apple will be selling an adapter separately, but it’s a hassle and an extra expense.
The other problem comes with third-party app updates. Since developers received no more notice about the new screen size than the rest of us (despite paying fees to Apple to stay in the loop) it will take time for everyone to update. I’m not sure if Apple will leave part of the screen blank so resolution stays intact in the meantime, or if it will force apps to stretch-to-fit, but either way, it will be a while before everything is retooled and looks great on the four-inch Retina display.
The bright side: shelf life
The big bright side to these incremental updates is that the pressure to buy a new device every year – or for those of us with iPads, twice a year – is off. We don’t buy new PCs every time a new feature comes along, so if we’re really in a post-PC era with our gadgets, they should mimic that. I miss the rush of “needing” whatever Mr. Jobs told me I needed, but I appreciate the breathing room. And, handing off older models to other family members doesn’t seem so chintzy.
If you are getting your first smartphone, the iPhone 5 is the best option although the 4S is worth considering if cost is the primary concern. The iPhone 5 is also for you if you have an iPhone 4 or older, more so if you also have an iPad and/or Mac and disposable income in this economy. For 4S owners, the upgrade is non-essential, but hipster fan-boys (and girls) will still clamour for one. And as for me, I’m hoping for one more pre-holiday event with an iPad mini and a much-needed Apple TV upgrade or even, dare I wish for it, the iTV, but don’t think it’s very likely. Still, I have been so well behaved, hanging on to my iPhone 4 and iPad 2 for an extra cycle, and enough is enough. I’m already stalking my cell provider’s website and marvel over my restraint during the last year.