When I worked in wireless retail, I would sell customers on the iPhone at least five times more often than any other smartphone, despite the fact that I wasn’t a personal fan and my store made next to nothing on them. I was an Android and BlackBerry guy at the time, and had either of them been better (for basic consumers) at the time, I probably would have sold more DROIDs and ‘Berrys.
But back then, about three and a half years ago, the iPhone was simply the best choice for the average consumer, hands down. It was the gold standard in mobile, and for years, every high-end smartphone was compared to Apple’s bread and butter. Very few of those Android flagships ever came anywhere near the level of fit and finish of the iPhone.
It’s hard to deny that Apple ran the smartphone industry for a few years, guiding competing platforms and manufacturers down roads they never thought they would go down: impressive pinhole-sized cameras, capacitive displays that worked well with stubby finger input, an application catalog with hundreds of thousands of apps and games to download and more. Not to mention, the iPhone was the best built mobile device around, incorporated top-end specs and offered one of the best and most well-rounded experiences of any mobile product.
For many who walked through the doors of my store seeking their first smartphone, the iPhone was really the only choice. (No, seriously, trust me.)
A lot has changed in the last three years, though.
If I worked in wireless retail today (which I hope I never have to do again for the remainder of my time on this planet), it would be a totally different story.
The competition has matured a lot over the last year alone – both in software and hardware. Including all the different strains of Android (Sense, TouchWiz, etc.), Google’s mobile OS has become more user-friendly and coherent as a platform, overall, thanks to the brilliant work of Matias Duarte. In hardware, some OEMs have managed to replicate the same (or similar) quality as Apple. The HTC One, for instance, is regarded as the first Android smartphone with better hardware than the iPhone (4, 4S or 5) by many. And while Samsung is still using those dreadful flimsy plastics, its devices showcase the most flexibility and utility of any smartphones – replaceable batteries, expandable storage, etc.
Specifications, however, is where Android rules and drives innovation. In late 2010, the world was introduced to the first smartphone with a dual-core smartphone, the LG Optimus 2X with a Tegra 2 chip, which later released in early 2011. Since then, we have seen countless dual-core chipsets, just as many quad-core chips and Samsung’s Exynos 5 Octa, a parallel set of quad-core processors for better performance and battery efficiency.
Display technology has also undergone rampant advancement, jumping from pixellated 3.7-inch to 4.3-inch WVGA (800 by 480 pixels) panels to a wide array of anywhere from 4.2-inch to 6.1-inch 720p or 1080p displays. But improvements have not only been brought to resolution. Color reproduction, contrast, visibility in sunlight, viewing angles and so much more has improved. Smartphones are now essentially pocket cinemas that make our computer displays and televisions look lackluster.
Cameras, battery technology and storage space are also improving. The iPhone 5 still has a slight edge in camera performance, but it’s only ever-so-slight (unless you count the 808 PureView). Given a few more months, they may lose that title. Battery technology hasn’t exactly evolved, but manufacturers are shrinking components and saving every last cubic millimeter to squeeze in extra milliamp-hours. And the days of meager 16GB of built-in storage will soon be over.
Point being, Apple has lost almost every edge its iPhone had over the competition in the last two years. Android manufacturers are innovating circles around Apple, both in hardware and software. And Apple has not introduced anything truly awe-inspiring or radically new or different since the iPhone 4 in mid-2010.
The iPhone 5, while said to be redesigned from the ground-up, is still the same ol’ design we’ve seen for going on three years now. Samsung is under fire for rehashing the nature inspired design of the Galaxy S III in the Galaxy S 4, and that design is only a year-old. Moving forward with the same exact design for the upcoming iPhone might only further prove assertions that Apple has passed its prime in the smartphone realm.
Let’s make one thing clear, however. Apple isn’t necessarily worried about specifications. The iPhone runs smooth as-is. It always has, even without the dual-core A6 chip. But one thing is certain: Apple needs more than just the iPhone 5S this year.
Break the tradition, make only one iPhone 5 model and jump to the iPhone 6 already. To many (myself most definitely included), a 4-inch display is still too small. And iOS is in dire need of some massive improvements to bring it out of 2007.
And a major update like that warrants a totally new handset. I, like many others, am tired of the old design. It was nice the first two times around. And the iPhone 5 is gorgeous, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that it’s just a slightly revised design.
Do I think Apple will introduce something new and revolutionary this year? No. In fact, I’m pretty sure it won’t. I’m all but positive iOS 7 will be as disappointing as the last three updates, even if Jony says it will be “simple and flat”. And the iPhone 5S – or whatever it will be called – will more than likely be a slight revision to last year’s model.
Apple is conservative. The company plays it safe, thriving off a single revolutionary product that initially wows its audience – everyone, really. Then Apple continues to make minor improvements over the next decade, falling behind the competition until its next major revolution.
There’s nothing wrong with that, really. But this smartphone market is vicious. And BlackBerry used to do the same exact thing, albeit to a whole different extreme. RIM was once on top of the world, but the company rested on its laurels. It’s still trying to recover, though most of the former BlackBerry loyalists seem disinterested.
And I’m slowly beginning to see more iPhone advocates jumping ship to … none other than Android. Robert Scoble, for one. Who’s next, John Gruber? (I kid. The world will end first.)
It’s hard to imagine the lack of innovation on Apple’s part hasn’t affected the company’s presence in the market. How many of those 50 million Galaxy S IIIs sold would have instead been iPhones had Apple made some truly major changes last year? There are companies who have learned and implemented Apple’s tactics (Samsung, HTC, etc.), and to think that won’t affect Apple is naive. We also thought BlackBerry wouldn’t disappear practically overnight. And we thought Palm’s webOS might be a huge success.
Apple won’t disappear overnight. The iPhone is still a relevant, useful tool. But the more Apple rehashes the same ol’ thing, the more people are going to realize that there are better things out there that do more, look cooler and perform just as well.