Has Apple’s iPhone jumped the shark?


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.

Image credit: 惟①刻¾, Creative Commons


  1. I have a similar experience of the iPhone, but jumped the shark? I don’t think so.

    I too was very frustrated with my original 3G. I had cracked and had the front glass replaced about 9 months into my contract. All good, but the resealing of the unit with the new glass wasn’t 100% spot on, and gradually dust crept inside and made its way across the screen. Annoying, but not the end of the world.

    But it was getting slower and slower. I was due to come out of contract in March coming, but was fearing supply problems with the iPhone 4. None of the majors – (Telstra, Vodafone or Optus) – would take orders given the backlog.

    I stumbled onto an outlet with in-store stock in December – and managed to get a hold of one.

    Despite the initial excitement of the newer phone with SIGNIFICANTLY faster processor, astonishingly better screen, and more features, it is now a tool, not a toy.

    I don’t think this is jumping the shark.

    This is where a smartphone should fit into your life. A tool to assist you through your day. People who want to think it’s this amazing little piece of status symbol have missed the point. Day to day life should be about your day to day life, not worrying about how excited you get about your phone.

    For me, the iPhone has become the perfect tool to let me get done, what I have to get done when I am not at any of my desks.

    It has reached the natural tipping point. Maybe it is not on top of the world anymore, but I don’t think that matters. Nothing stays on top forever.

    • It’s true, a smartphone should simply fit into your life. But I think phones in 2011 are more than just windows to your services, the internet etc. They are clearly designed as glamorous, ‘hot’ devices that are attractive to consumers.

      Are people still excited about the iPhone? Of course they are. According to Apple’s latest results call, people can’t get enough of the handset. However, does the device have the same glamour amongst the technology early adopter set right now that something like the Google Nexus S does? I’m not so sure. I think people are starting to “not see” the iPhone and are starting to take it for granted, while there are prettier, newer toys out there.

      They’re not necessarily better devices. But they are … different.

      • Different things to different people – I’m sure some people still bar-up over them – I guess as long as people’s phone meets their needs – (whether they be technical, lifestyle, or fashion statement) – that’s all that matters.

        Consumerism FTW!

        • I have taken ‘bar-up’ and put it pride-of-place for my new euphemisms of 2011.

          Well done, sir, well done. :)

      • BBQ with my wifes friends yesterday. All mid/late twenties. I’m the only “tech” person. Teachers, retail, call-center, tradie, personal trainer, couple of office workers. 9 iPhones. 1 old Nokia (the owner owns an iPad and is hanging out for the iPhone5).

        I don’t think I’ve seen a Nexus S in the wild. I’ve seen 2 Nexus Ones – ever.

        In Australia at least — without ATT to hold them back — Apple are now a majority player (at least in certain circles).

        Getting an iPhone is boring. Everyone has one. Someone getting an Android phone is interesting in the sense that it’s not an iPhone. Still, Apple have been managing this for 10 years now – they managed to keep iPod’s ‘cool’ despite the crushing market share. So they might be able to pull it off.

  2. I am very happy with the incremental updates Apple is giving us with the iPhone. I have owned a 3G and now using a 3GS which I am very happy with. No doubt eventually I will move to an iPhone 4 or whatever current iPhone model will be available in a years time.

    For me the iPhone has always been a tool. It is my mobile always on internet access, it is my always on instant messenger, and it is my always on Twitter feed reader. It is my personal App repository for reading books, checking my share portfolio, and taking notes. It is my always on YouTube viewer. Lastly and most importantly it is my music library. All wrapped in an ultra-portable package.

    What makes the iPhone is iTunes and the App Store. Without this the iPhone would be just another pretty but functional phone. I wouldn’t even begin to consider using another phone without iTunes.

    I think a lot of journalists fail to see the importance of iTunes and the App Store (sorry Renai I think you are falling into that trap) and the appeal it has in the marketplace for new phones. It is one of the very important reasons why iPhone owners will continue to purchase future iPhone updates rather than switch to Android-based platforms.

    • Oh I agree — Apple has locked everyone into its entire ecosystem with iTunes and the App Store — and it’s going to be very hard for people to leave that ecosystem. There is no way to port your apps to another platform.

      I hate the lock-in, though. I usually try to only use free apps where I can, or web apps — that way whenever I do shift, I won’t be forced to take up an Apple device by default.

      • Renai as long as the iTunes eco-system is working there is no reason not to continue using it. You can also argue the same point about the Steam digital distribution system for PC and Mac computer games. Steam has almost single handedly cornered the market for games distribution (with Direct2Drive coming in a far second) and has also been taking box sales away from retail stores.

        Like it or not distribution platforms like Steam and iTunes have cornered the market because they offered a groundbreaking elegant solution first. If they sucked people would not continue to use them and would look at other alternatives. That may be unfair on competitors but so be it. All that matters is that the end-user experience works.

        • Of course you’re right, and every year I fall into the habit of buying Steam games in the Christmas sales that I don’t end up ever playing :)

          However, I’d still like to see Apple open up that ecosystem a little more. With software and hardware increasingly becoming abstracted from each other, any vendor that tightly locks the two together is a bit of a danger, in my opinion. Steam, for example, is not locked to any particular piece of hardware.

  3. I think this article is really talking about the commoditisation of the mobile phone sector- hardly a surprising phenomenon. The key point I think that the article has NOT talked about is the Applications. Apple is commoditising the hardware & creating a environment for applications to be the focus.

    Most other phone manufacturers are doing to reverse- commoditisation of the software via android, make it all about the hardware.

    • Very insightful point — I think this is exactly what is going on. Apple’s hardware is becoming standard, while other players — which are unable to innovate deeply in software, due to the common platform, are focusing heavily on hardware innovation.

      • Yes, I think this is key. I played with an HTC Desire HD the other day, for example. The hardware is amazing, beautiful piece of tech.

        Of course, having used iPhone for 3 years now, the OS was completely impenetrable to me and I hated it in almost direct inverse proportion to how much I loved the hardware.

  4. Can’t believe jailbreaking hasn’t come up already! Seriously, if you’re look for more excitement and functionality out of your iPhone, jailbreak it open and start installing all the REALLY cool mods, tweaks and then customise it’s appearance just the way you want it.

    Jailbreaking used to be about unlocking, or installing basic tweaks to circumnavigate Apple restrictions, but now Cydia has evolved into a professional store offering paid applications that are of the same level of quality (if not better given there are no restrictions) to those that are found in the App Store.

    My phone is completely unrecognisable in both appearance and operation, when compared to a default iPhone 4. With the drastic changes to its lockscreen, vertically scrolling springboard pages and best of all; activator based gestures (that can be assigned to anything you can think of) it truly feels like a device 12 months ahead of its time. Not to mention you feel like you are getting every last bit of performance out of that tasty A4 processor!

    To me this is the best of both worlds, and given the enormous range of quality iOS apps, a far more satisfying experience than anything currently available running Android. The Atrix 4G is the only smartphone to come out of CES that in any way interests me as a possible upgrade. Even then it needs more processor power to achieve what it’s setting out to do, so I think another 12 months are needed for that concept to be properly realised in a practical way.

  5. I still want to use my phone as a universal TV remote.

    I like that Atrix final pushes docking in the right direction.

    but I still want the simple really really useful ideas FIRST…


    • Not sure if Delimiter accepts HTML in comments, but here goes:

      Seen this? (converts blu-tooth to IR) or this one? (converts wi-fi to IR)

      They are a bit on the expensive side, but hopefully a sign of good things to come.

      I think Vizio’s upcoming Honeycomb tablet and Gingerbread smartphone come with inbuilt IR blasters (as they are a very A/V centric company) so I hope this trend catches on.

      I already have a good quality Logitech Harmony One remote, but I love the idea of being able to customise layouts and buttons on my phone with the exact macros I want. Would be lots of fun :)

  6. “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.”

    What you’re basically saying is that the iPhone already does everything you could need it to do, and that its many features have faded into the background because you just use them and don’t sit in awe about them anymore. This is true about every piece of tech but in the end, as you suggest, it’s all about how much the device lets you get done. It’s only when its functionality is out of step with your needs that you start to get antsy. The only hardware feature the iPhone doesn’t have is NFC and I’d suggest it’s a lock for the iPhone 5. But again, it’s not something we desperately need yet so nobody cares now.

    Oh – and the day the audience at an iPhone launch isn’t rapturously excited will be the day Oprah’s audience doesn’t scream in ecstasy about the prospect of free massages for everyone or somesuch. The universe truly would implode.

  7. “Oh – and the day the audience at an iPhone launch isn’t rapturously excited will be the day Oprah’s audience doesn’t scream in ecstasy about the prospect of free massages for everyone or somesuch. The universe truly would implode.”

    I think you’re right there. It’s pretty sickening to watch. However keep in mind that a.) they are only American b.) that most of the attendees at WWDC are developers and Jobs has made them very wealthy. If I were a software developer for iOS I’d probably think Jobs was a God and cheer his every sentence as well..

    Renai: From other articles you wrote, I presumed you’d actually gone for an Android phone, given your love of open source software. I qas very surprised to read this and find out you’ve stuck with Apple! Anyway, given you seem under-whelmed with your iPhone 4 (I’m not sure how that’s possible or what exactly you expected the thing to do!) but anyway, what hardware and software features would you like to see on the iPhone 5 to make it a truly formidable competitor?

  8. What about LTE and all the new technologies that will be designed for it?

    What about new near-field technologies?

    What about everything that doesn’t exist yet?

    You have absolutely no vision.

  9. Was in the exact same boat. Got so sick and tired of my iPhone 3g( yes I jail broke it to see if it would get more exciting -it didn’t). Researched.and made the switch to windows phone 7. What I change it is .truly a mobile on the edge, can’t imagine ever using a boring iPhone ever again. My brother 3GS and 4 looks antique. Very happy with the switch .

  10. Seriously Peter? C’mon, you work for M’soft right?

    I have used a couple of new Windows phones and they feel okay but nothing new – certainly not iPhone killers!

  11. Dead serious. I can’t even look at the iphone anymore. Looks so damn old (having it for 2 years what has really changed – wallpapers? folders?). Loving my Omnia 7 and IMO much better than the iphone. Each to their own i guess.

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