A Tale of Two iPhone Launches
Submitted for your approval: a trip to the Apple Reality Distortion Zone. Two possible futures await the debut of an iPhone 5S. One has mere cosmetic changes to the phone and a moderate update for iOS, which results in a disaster on the launch pad. The other highlights an exclusive new feature plus an iOS redesign that prompts the kind of cheers and applause Apple faithful are used to hearing.
04/04/13 5:00 AM PT
Back in the days of Steve Jobs, Apple enthusiasts could count on one (more) thing: While we weren't sure what sort of product Jobs was going to unveil, we knew it was going to be wicked cool.
Now, after we've had the benefit of seeing Apple's rhythmic release of new products over the years, ferreting out patterns and likely timeframes, we know more about new products than ever before.
Aside from the occasional corporate espionage photos leaked from faraway lands, when we hear that Apple's supply chain and manufacturing partners have ramped up production, it often signals a basic timeline to release. Given Apple's penchant for engineering a cool new product, then slowly upgrading it with new paint and tires (i.e. offering fancy colors and a faster processor), all signs are pointing toward the release of an iPhone 5S -- just like the release of an iPhone 4S after the iPhone 4.
It may help to note that San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon reported that Apple's government liaison told him the next two generations of iPhones have already been developed and have preceded Tim Cook -- meaning Steve Jobs had a hand in their development, thus implying the same familiar cycle is already scheduled.
Awesome or Horrible?
Now that Apple is considered the King of the Consumer Tech Hill, expectations are high, and not just for the sake of Wall Street's stock price gamblers and manipulators.
I get the impression even regular consumers are starting to look at Apple with a questioning gaze at least as often as the old school look of wonderment. Never before have I seen such potential for a vast fissure in the Apple zeitgeist as I do with the iPhone 5S.
The phone could fizzle like never before. Or Apple's DNA includes surprise and delight, so maybe, just maybe, it'll add a soon-to-be copied feature.
I see two equally likely scenarios.
Outcome 1: Horrible Disappointment
If Apple releases an iPhone 5S (or iPhone 5Y or N or Z) that retains the exact same form factor but adds a faster processor, smarter flash and camera, along with a 128GB of storage, the competition will breathe a sigh of relief.
They will then erupt in merciless laughter at Apple and its icons, and point to shiny competitors who have customizable interfaces. No matter that other smartphone manufacturers aren't truly out-innovating Apple -- we're still talking about perception and the ridiculously high bar that Apple set for itself over the last five years.
In fact, I believe that the collective expectations of the tech-consuming world are speeding up at a rate faster than Moore's Law.
A moderate update to iOS would add insult to injury. Does Apple CEO Tim Cook, or even Senior Vice President of Industrial Design Jonathan Ive, have the ability to convince us that by removing the yellow lined-paper skeuomorphism effect from the Notes app, the change is enough to incite wonder?
How about increasing the quality of voice calling on AT&T and other networks? What about a fingerprint reader instead of a homescreen lock code? What about NFC and payments at retail checkout stands?
How can Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing spin this into anything compelling? With a pretty red or vibrant yellow case?
Sales will still happen. Loyalists like myself will still buy. Apple's valuable mind share? Seriously degraded.
Outcome 2: Wild Excitement
What if Apple improves everything in the iPhone 5, but retains the same svelte screen size, look and feel? NFC and fingerprint readers, along with color and minor interface tweaksm are just not enough.
That doesn't mean, however, that there's no room for surprise. What if Apple offers up a much improved iOS? What if the skeuomorphism is gone and replaced by a look and feel that surprises like a MacBook Air?
Maybe, but some features of iOS will also trickle down to previous iPhone generation users. We would need an exclusive feature like Siri.
It's barely possible that Apple will redesign the iPhone 5, meaning that the next generation of the iPhone could be more useful than ever. This would result in a refresh of exuberance, clearly, by Apple fans.
Still, I believe there's only one way the iPhone 5S can lead to wild excitement, and that's through the addition of new services, features and related products. The story of the iPhone 5S would be about the entire ecosystem -- iCloud, iTunes, Apple TV -- along with dozens of everyday improvements, like twice the battery life and new movie and television services.
Is this sort of success cheating? Yes it is. The iPhone 5S becomes wildly successful as a product of proximity to a cornucopia of new Apple improvements.
What am I missing here? What feature could regenerate global love for the iPhone 5S? An iPhone 5B, for a bigger phablet-sized screen? Do we come back around to buddy features to steal the show?
I like the idea of a low-cost sibling in the form factor of an thicker iPhone 5 that's made out of glow-in-the-dark polycarbonate.
On the other hand, do you believe the only way Apple is going to rise above a big dip with Wall Street and maintain mindshare is with the introduction of something radically new -- like an iTV or iWatch that lets Apple buy some additional smartphone time?