The iPhone 5: Tomorrow’s Hardware Running Yesterday’s Software. Again.

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Apple announced a new iPhone and iPod product family today, and I have to be honest with you: it was kind of tough to get excited about.

That’s not because Apple isn’t a great company doing amazing things; it is. Since the initial iPhone was unveiled five years ago, the company has been a driving force in the mobile space, pushing consumers’ expectations of quality ever-higher and forcing rivals to redouble their efforts to stay competitive. Realizing that doesn’t take a fanboy mentality; no matter what you think of Apple or its products, you have to acknowledge the massive influence the company has come to exert on the landscape.

But Apple is also, in many ways, a slow company. It moves deliberately, almost ploddingly, toward its goals. Remember how long it took just to get copy-and-paste support built into iOS? How about MMS? Multi-tasking? Cupertino has always moved at its own pace. It hasn’t hurt them, either; as Tim Cook reminded us at today’s iPhone announcement, Apple’s notebooks rank #1 in US marketshare for the last three months, the iPad dominates the tablet space with a 68% share of that market, and the company has moved over 400 million iOS devices in total. By some metrics, Apple is the most valuable company in history.

So why can’t it impress us like it used to?

Not to worry, bro.

To be completely fair, the new iPhone -called “iPhone 5” despite its status as the sixth version of Apple’s smartphone- is a much more impressive upgrade over its predecessor than was last year’s iPhone 4S. The buying public will see exactly what Apple chose to focus on in the announcement itself: a more modern, lighter, slimmer device with a bigger display, faster radio, and a better camera. The improvements to the new iPhone actually appear best in list form:

  • 18% thinner, 20% lighter than iPhone 4S (112g)
  • 4-inch, 16:9 Retina display at 326ppi and 1136 x 640 screen resolution, with 44% more color saturation
  • HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, LTE radios
  • New Wi-Fi, 2.4ghz and 5ghz on 802.11n.
  • A6 processor, two times faster than A5 (both CPU and graphics performance)
  • Enhanced 8MP iSight camera: dynamic low light mode, sapphire crystal, panorama mode. 40% faster photo capture.
With a spec sheet like that -and a lot more not mentioned above- it’s hard to contest Apple SVP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller’s claim that the iPhone 5 is “the most beautiful product we’ve ever made.” And it’s hard to see how anyone could be disappointed. 

But people will be disappointed. Some people are. I’m one of them.

Note that “I’m disappointed” does not equal “I’m surprised.” Because I’m not. If you follow Apple, you learn to accept certain things about the nature of the company, and a big one is the glacial development pace noted above. So when today’s announcement didn’t blow my skirt up too far, I wasn’t surprised.

Here’s the thing: it’s not about the hardware. The new iPhone might be a little on the small side for those who’ve grown accustomed to 5-inch smartphone screens, but for most people it’s going to be just right. The narrower aspect ratio combined with the new device’s thin dimensions will result in an iPhone that fits very nicely in the hand. In today’s announcement, it looked a lot like the Motorola RAZR M we just reviewed, a perfect fit for the average palm.

“Never before have we built a product with this level of fit and finish,” said Apple SVP of Industrial Design Jony Ive in one of today’s many videos. Clearly, that’s true. And the guts humming along inside that lovingly crafted casing are among the most capable in the world. Coupled with the software, built by the same hands under the same corporate roof, it’s easy to see how some people see this as the world’s most advanced smartphone.

But, excellent though it is, not much of the hardware story is news. At least, not to those who follow the industry. We’ve heard whispers for months that the new iPhone would probably feature a similar design to the 4S, with a 4-inch screen and a new dock connector, among other rumors. The official design we saw earlier today closely mirrors many of the leaks, so there was no real surprise when the iPhone 5 rose from the stage floor at today’s announcement. Worse, some of the more interesting “other rumors,” such as NFC and wireless charging, didn’t come to pass.

Some of that disappointment is self-inflicted, of course. He who believes every rumor will find himself let down at every announcement, no matter how earth-shattering it is. But the sheer volume of leaks that turned out to be credible speaks volumes about Apple’s (in)ability to control the PR surrounding the crown jewel in its smartphone portfolio. If this is the famous “Apple-like secrecy” Nokia vowed to use on its Windows Phone portfolio, I’d say more than one company needs to change its tactics. This was a case where the leaks were so many, and so accurate, over so long a period, that the surprise really was ruined.

But the biggest disappointment of the day came from software, specifically the iOS 6 platform. Announced back at WWDC in June, the new OS certainly has its share of impressive -I’d even go so far as to say “awesome”- features. But from a visual standpoint, iOS as a whole is a platform rapidly growing stale.

That’s understating the case, actually. We’re past the point of giving Apple enough slack to say that iOS is “starting to feel a little worn out.” From a UI perspective, the platform, with its unblinking grid of static, dumb app icons, is the dullest thing out there right now. And iOS 6 does nothing to correct for these deficiencies. As I said back in June:

Many people like the consistency and ease-of-use the current interface offers. While I understand that, I’m also haunted by memories of Windows Mobile and Blackberry, two platforms that employed a virtually unchanged user interface over generations of devices, eventually iterating themselves into irrelevancy. Apple is in a much better position than either of the companies behind those OSes, but complacency will kill even the biggest Mountain Lion. See what I did there?

Nothing we saw in today’s announcement changes my opinion of Apple’s new platform. Some of us were hoping for the mystery features briefly shown off at the end of WWDC to manifest in today’s announcement, for some kind of eleventh-hour “one more thing” that might catapult iOS back to the forefront of UI design. Instead, what we got was Scott Forstall demonstrating VIP support in Mail and enhanced photo stream comments.

I will always value beautiful hardware, and Apple has delivered on that front. Phil Schiller said the iPhone 5 is “unlike anything we or anyone else in our industry has made before.” That’s true. Apple is to be commended for building a truly admirable addition to its smartphone lineup.

But that beautiful piece of hardware is running software that Apple claims is “the world’s most advanced mobile operating system.” That’s a subjective claim that has been and will be debated all across the internet for years … but I don’t think it’s true. I think iOS is a very capable platform, with more widespread acceptance and clout than any other, and for the moment it has more utility than Android and Windows Phone. I’ll give it that.

But those competitors aren’t standing still, and that’s evident in their constantly evolving UI designs. Next to them, iOS almost looks like it’s stuck in a time capsule. The result, from my vantage point, is a strange mismatch: a capable but aging platform mated to truly stellar hardware, like a has-been rock god from the 80s married to a Hollywood starlet just entering her prime. That kind of thing can work for a while, but it seldom lasts forever.

After all, we’ve seen this kind of thing before.

Amirite?

___

Apple iPhone 5 Announcement Photos Source: The Verge

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!