Another September, another new iPhone. Let’s quickly recap: a new CPU that’s the world’s fastest, just like last year. A new camera ‘system’ that’s the world’s best, just like last year. New software that ‘offers breakthrough new capabilities’, marketing-speak for ‘incremental improvements’. Last year’s great phone becomes this year’s mid-range model, last year’s mid-range becomes the new entry-level, rinse and repeat. Yes, iPhone releases have become mind-numbingly predictable and non-newsworthy. As an Apple Fanboy it’s probably taken me longer than most to realize this, but it’s undeniable.
To some extent this is not the fault of Apple, or any other manufacturer for that matter. The cell phone has reached maturity in a lot of ways. Screen sizes and pixel density are no longer big deals because virtually all smartphones have excellent screens. The cameras always seem to get better, but never as much as the manufacturers claim. Sometimes the physical shape changes, but rarely in ways that make a big difference.
I’m currently using an iPhone X, purchased on Release Day at the Union Square Apple Store in downtown San Francisco. For a guy that routinely changed phones every couple months, the fact that I have managed to keep a phone for almost four years is sort of mind-blowing. But that’s yet another indicator that I’ve grown numb to iPhone releases. This phone’s only noticeable shortcoming is the battery life, which is completely excusable given its age. But I’ve had mixed results with battery replacements in the past, so I think it’s time to let this one take a well-deserved retirement.
What Would Make For a Revolutionary iPhone?
We all keep an informal wish list for phone improvements. Here’s mine:
- A true mobile workspace – Samsung offers a feature called Dex that offers up a desktop-like user experience when you plug a supported Galaxy phone or Galaxy Note tablet in to an external keyboard, mouse, and display. Samsung is so preoccupied with shamelessly copying Apple that they ignore their own novel features, which is a shame. Motorola tried this in the past as well.
- USB-C – The Lightning port has run its course and needs to be replaced. Apple already uses USB-C on the rest of their product line-up but still stubbornly sticks to their antiquated connector on the iPhone. I hate having to keep multiple chargers around, especially when I see how fast my USB-C-equipped iPad Air charges versus my old Lightning-equipped iPad Pro. I don’t agree with the EU’s tactic of legislating Apple into making this change, but I would like to see it happen nonetheless.
- TouchID and FaceID in one device – Apple famously discards an older, proven technology when they want to use a newer approach, but sometimes the old ways are still the best. If you’re trying to unlock your phone in intense sunlight, or from the side of a pool, or in the middle of the night, FaceID isn’t always reliable. And in the age of the human malware known as COVID-19, facemasks render FaceID useless. But your fingerprint is still your fingerprint. Multiple options would be nice.
- Support for side-loading apps – I know I’m never going to see this one, but I’m still going to ask. It would be especially handy for devices used in special circumstances, such as kiosks or as remote controls. I would want this feature limited only to experienced users who know what they’re getting in to, as such a feature could be used for evil just as easily as for good.
- A front flash – I’m surprised nobody has done this yet.
- Ready for the Next Big Thing! A lot of people didn’t know they needed a modern smartphone until the original iPhone came along. It disrupted an industry that we now all realize needed to be shaken up a bit, as phone models were getting boringly similar and flashes of actual innovation were few and far between. Sort of like right now!
You just described Android! Why not switch?
While it’s true that the Android ecosystem addresses many of these wants, it doesn’t include many iOS-exclusive features that I consider essential to my daily workflow. For example: my various Apple devices – iPhone, iPad, and MacBook – all work together. I can do cut on one device and paste on another, use my iPad as a second monitor for my MacBook, and access most of the same files, always using whichever device is most appropriate in a given situation. Because this functionality is baked in at the lowest levels, it works like a charm and is supported nearly across the board with all apps. It’s always been my experience that Android lags in this area because developers will typically target a minimum configuration to reach the broadest range of potential customers rather than truly exploit the capabilities of a unique device. I learned this the hard way with a Samsung Galaxy Note 10 several years ago: not a lot of apps supported the stylus, and even when they did it was usually only the most minimal of support. When Apple finally introduced the Pencil for the first-generation iPad Pro the iPad developer community jumped on it immediately.
Where the innovation actually happens
The iPhone 13 Pro’s camera ‘system’ is arguably the best in the business. I’ve been able to take truly amazing pictures in low light, long distance, and other difficult situations. It seamlessly selects between its various lenses with no user input required. It helped me accurately and honestly present the condition of my old iPhone X’s screen when I put it up for sale. It can even detect when it’s taking a picture of my dogs. The color depth and clarity impresses everyone who sees it. I knew the camera would be better than my old iPhone X but I didn’t realize just how much better it truly would be.
That being said, unless there’s a disruptive change in the market I’ll probably wait yet another four years before my next upgrade, if not longer. The incremental improvements paired with Apple’s current price-points, which are probably the highest the market will tolerate in large numbers, make adapting a longer device lifecycle a reasonable choice. Put another way: Mr. Cook, if you want to see my money more often, start coming up with more meaningful innovation. Apple trades on its ability to disrupt markets and change them for the better. Steve Jobs was a big believer in making one’s own products obsolete before the competition could. It’s time to re-light that spark.