opinion Several months ago I finally got tired of my two-year-old iPhone 3G.
I got tired of every app taking too long to load. I got tired of waiting for the handset’s pathetically slow Maps application to suck down tiny gibbets of geographical data in five minute increments while I was giving driving directions in the car. I got tired of frame rate lag in entry level games. I got tired of its woeful camera and its complete inability to load YouTube clips despite being in a Wi-Fi zone.
Most of all, of course, I got completely, insanely, out of my mind tired of Apple’s complete lack of interest in at least pretending its latest software was designed to run on anything earlier than an iPhone 3GS, and I got tired of its nonchalance regarding that fact.
So, one day in November last year, I took myself down to Telstra’s T-Life store in the Sydney CBD, directly opposite Apple’s metal and glass monolith, and bought an iPhone 4 from a friendly Asian girl who also explained why I couldn’t suck up the bubbles in my Pearl Milk Tea: I had the wrong sized straw.
And for two months, I was happy.
For the first time, I could read iBooks on my iPhone. Everything was fast. I played endless games of Infinity Blade with earth-shattering 3D graphics. I took photos of everything and edited them in-phone on Photoshop. Then I started filming 720p video and uploading the results directly to YouTube over my speedy 3G connection. Multi-tasking, FaceTime, app folders, A4 CPU, Retina Display, bliss!
But now I’m back to square one again.
After just two months, my iPhone 4 has faded into the background of my life, and has become yet another basic tool that I use, rather than something new and joyful.
Sure, everything still loads fast, and I have access to all of the latest Apple features, the top apps, and as much content as I can handle wherever I am, with my speedy Next G connection to the great wide Internet. And yet I am plagued by the feeling that the iPhone 4 is not fundamentally a different product than the iPhone 3G, which went on sale two years before it.
It looks the same, feels the same, and although it is faster, memories of slow applications and internet access have faded into the background as my new handset becomes the norm. It is no longer a revolutionary device. It is the smartphone equivalent of a new graphics card; faster, but performing exactly the same functions in exactly the same way.
To my mind, it is this problem that will become Apple’s biggest headache over the next several years as it continues to try to develop its products in a way that will make people want to buy them.
It’s a problem that Apple arch-rival Microsoft has understood for decades now.
Every new version of Windows — like every new iPhone — has been fundamentally re-worked compared with the old version, with deep structural changes affecting everything from the kernel of the operating system and up. And yet, there are really only two things that people look at when they buy new versions of stable technology products: New hardware or software features that allow them to do things that they couldn’t previously, and new user interface enhancements that change the way they interact with the system as a whole.
We need only look at the fact that most people never understood that there were vast differences between Windows 95, 98, ME and Windows NT to see this illustrated. In the minds of the general public, it wasn’t until Windows XP that Microsoft truly evolved Windows — because the new operating system felt dramatically different and offered radically new features such as a fantastic new graphics subsystem that drove a multimedia explosion, a driver and kernel architecture that worked so much better, complete Internet integration and a sparkling new user interface.
It was partly for this reason that Microsoft drastically overhauled Office for the 2007 release. Remember the ribbon we all hated so much? Sure, we can admit now that it’s also pretty damn functional, but it also served the marketing purpose at the time of convincing people to pay for something shiny and new.
With the iPhone, Apple is now facing the same problem that it has faced with its Macintosh desktops and laptops for some time. Both types of products have literally nowhere truly new to go in terms of their immediate evolution, reaching their respective pinnacles both in terms of the way people use them and what they use them for.
Sometimes, fast enough is fast enough. Right now, there are no conceivable major features that Apple could add to the iPhone that would radically change it as an infrastructure platform, until technology itself takes another step change into radical new areas — for example, 3D visuals without glasses (hello, Nintendo).
You can see Apple trying to stay ahead of such step changes as they occur. The iPhone 4’s Retina Display screen and increased sensitivity to different degrees of movement, its re-designed CPU, its upgraded camera and support for videoconferencing were all examples of the company’s attempt to build something new into its stagnating device. But ultimately I suspect that when Apple’s next major iPhone product launch comes around, chief designer Steve Jobs may find it difficult to excite the audience with the company’s new model.
Of course, Apple has faced this problem before.
Much of the stimulus for the creation of the iPhone itself must have come from the obvious stagnation of the desktop and laptop computer markets; systems which have increasingly been left behind on the innovation curve over the past decade as the globe’s teeming billions turned to increasingly to smartphones as one of their main daily computing devices. For anyone who doubts this, remember the success of the BlackBerry throughout the five years from 2002. Its grip on the corporate market in Western countries was phenomenal, and in many ways still is.
Now, of course, Apple is coming full circle, bridging the gap between the smartphone and the PC with the iPad and, with the upcoming Lion version of its Mac OS X operating system, bringing many of its learnings from the iPhone to the desktop and laptop.
An indication of the way that Apple must take its unified technology stack can be found in the Motorola Atrix, a revolutionary phone demonstrated at the CES conference several weeks ago which can, with the aid of a desktop cradle, function as a smartphone, laptop, desktop PC and even set-top box.
It’s not hard to imagine a world filled with dumb desktop, laptop and set-top box devices which only start functioning fully when a user slots their next-generation, dual-core CPU, high memory iPhone 8 into them.
But until that vision arrives, Apple will have to some pretty hard thinking about how it will keep the iPhone sexy over the next several years.
Sure, the iPad 2 (and 3) will do much to keep us occupied. But Apple is currently faced with an absolute onslaught of competition in the smartphone space. In 2010, Google’s Android platform went in Australia from an almost un-heard of platform to the second-most important mobile operating system; and in 2011 analysts like Telsyte are predicting it will treble its install base.
At CES the new high-end Android handsets came like a wave … the Samsung Infuse 4G, the HTC Freestyle and Inspire, the Motorola Atrix, the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, the LG Optimus Black and more, with each additional handset looking and functioning more like the iPhone 4 than the last. Next month will come Mobile World Congress in Spain, and yet another generation of high-end Android handsets will be unveiled, along with a plethora of Windows Phone 7 devices being added into the mix.
From where Apple is standing, it’s wall to wall competition from some of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world. And they’re all gunning for it with a BFG 9000 strapped onto one arm and a SPNKR-X17 rocket launcher on the other.
(If you get both of those references then the universe is likely to implode)
None of this is to say that Apple is under any kind of real threat; its hegemony over the world of mobile phones is in 2010 relatively unchallenged, and it still has a massive amount of dumbphone users to convert into happy iPhone fanboys. I bought my iPhone 4 for a reason — I evaluated the market, and Apple’s product was still the best out there.
But what it does mean is that right now, there are — like me — literally millions of early adopter technology types scattered around Australia and the world that have been head-down in the Apple mobile eco-system for a while, but are now looking up and around to see what’s next. People who are watching Android catch up and wondering when to make the switch.
Apple only has a brief interval of time in which to attract our middle class attention with shiny new toys before we start to feel guilty for not joining the faster, broader and increasingly more innovative and open Android upgrade cycle. And that’s a dangerous thing for the team at Cupertino.