The iPhone 5 is an improvement over its predecessor in nearly every way, and is launching at the same price. I wasn’t one of the lucky few who got their hands on a demo unit at the launch, so I only have Apple’s official materials and a day full of foreign news coverage to go by. Reactions around the world, and even on our own Facebook and Twitter pages, have been surprisingly negative. Not just ambivalent, which would be the more natural response to underwhelming news, but actively hostile. I sense a bit of a mob mentality here—just as people delight in seeing celebrities embarrass themselves, Apple is now so big and so powerful (and in many ways such a bully) that it has become a sort of target. A lot of people actually want to see the world’s most profitable company fail at something or face some massive embarrassment. It’s a little disturbing that right now, an anticlimactic product launch, high-profile courtroom defeat or slip in market share will have a lot of people dancing with vicious glee.
A sampling of comments left on the Tech2 Facebook page during and after the launch event.
For better or worse, Apple now seems unable to keep secrets related to iPhone development. We knew exactly what was coming weeks ago, and there were no surprises at all. In fact even finding such leaks has turned into a blood sport.
Leaks or no, though, the truth is there really were no “wow” moments during yesterday’s product launch. Nothing felt very new or exciting. That goes for hardware as well as software— whereas previous iPhones have set the standard for their generations and redefined expectations of a portable device’s capabilities, the latest model only catches up to or provides alternative approaches to the things its existing competition already has and does. The majority of the changes are, for the first time, reactionary. Apple reacted to market demand with a larger screen and 4G, but we’ve been spoilt to the point that we demand to be surprised and delighted as well. That just can’t happen every single year.
Nothing could have prepared the world for the moment in which Apple unveiled the first iPhone in early 2007. The iPhone first changed our expectations of what a portable device’s user interface should be like. It gave us a full Web browser, multitouch, a huge screen (for the time), and apps. Then came high-quality gaming, revolutionary cameras, beautiful design, simple video calling, and intelligent voice control. Not all of it was fully baked at the outset but no amount of criticism could cast a shadow over the joy and relief that ordinary people felt when using one.
I’d also like to point out that the iPod, iMac, Mac Pro, Mac Mini and MacBook lines were reinvented fairly often when they first debuted, and all eventually found their ideal forms. There won’t be any experimentation with form or function if there is no technology breakthrough to warrant a radical departure from established materials and processes. That’s also why the biggest new talking points are changes to existing features: a new Maps app here; a faster 4G standard there. Apple chose to refine everything about its existing design, from the materials and craftsmanship to the software experience, rather than force some premature “innovation”—and is therefore being called boring and disappointing. I have a feeling that people will be a lot more impressed with the iPhone 5 when they hold it in their hands. Even if it doesn’t have the largest screen or freshest look, the sheer quality of the metal-and-glass body is going to set it apart in a sea of flimsy plastic alternatives. It’s simply not about the features, if the features don’t contribute to the user experience.
I spent a good hour this morning re-watching a video of Steve Jobs unveiling the very first iPhone. For years, fans had been clamoring for an iPod phone, a widescreen iPod, a pocket computer, and various other fantasy gadgets. Those of us following the news that day knew something big was coming, but had no idea what shape or form it would take. When Steve Jobs started describing the new device, and as it became clear that it was going to fulfill every single fantasy the people in the audience had had, I felt the euphoria in that auditorium myself. Jobs himself was beaming with pride and satisfaction. The product in his hand was the culmination of years of work, all of which started because he believed that people had come to expect devices to be limited and difficult to use and needed to be shaken out of their inertia. We today have perpetuated this artificial expectation of a reinvention on the same scale every single year—the opposite kind of inertia, but inertia nonetheless. That’s unnecessary and impossible, and I think Jobs himself would be perfectly happy with the iPhone 5.
Five years ago, the man who no one knew was already critically ill proudly changed the world, beginning with these words: “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that… that changes everything”. We would do well to remember that in context.