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iPhone 5 – Smart, fast, elegant, well-made… and obsolete

So the waves of hype have crashed upon the shores of California and carried with them a new iPhone – number 5 as it turns out. As the hype recedes it’s been interesting to see what they have left behind. First impressions of pictures online show a smaller slimmer and lighter phone, which we’re told is lighter and more powerful as well. Smaller, slimmer, lighter, faster… sounds like lyrics from a Daft Punk song. In any case, for a phone that’s a pretty compelling sales pitch, but will it work for the 5? Along with the release there’s been some interesting aspects of the Apple narrative that are worth addressing, this narrative seems to be summed up in a general feeling from a portion of Apple’s fanbase of disappointment, a sort of “Really? Is that it?” It’s worth taking a look at this in more detail.

Don’t believe your hype

First and foremost this feeling of disappointment is a natural product of the prerelease hype, combined with the actions of the fanbase. The interrelationship between Apple and its fanbase has an odd dynamic… as if the earth was in fact orbiting the Moon. The Moon, a silent enigmatic object being orbited by the frenetic, chaotic vibrant earth. So it is with silent enigmatic Apple and it’s frenetic fanbase, this is how things have always been. We all know the routine by now; in the months leading up to an iPhone release we see mounting rumours, and apparent leaks, fans create their own versions of what they imagine, but when the time comes the reality is different to what anyone really expected. The look is different and the features are different. This time though, the leaks had largely nailed down the look and most of the features, and inevitably the fan based was disappointed… they got pretty much what they expected. It’s not supposed to happen like that with Apple!!

Apple v Samsung – a Pyrrhic Victory 

The second narrative behind the release was the recent Samsung vs Apple court case. I’m not going to go into details here or add much opinion beyond my belief that jury trails in patent cases are absurd and that this case was a double edged sword for Apple. Yes they cemented their reputation as an innovator (like they didn’t already have that), but the enormous publicity surrounding the case also drew public attention to the fact that Samsung do indeed make phones, and they’re pretty damn successful at flogging them. Admittedly their first attempts where not much more than a knock off of the first iPhone, as the court case made clear. But they needed to get to market quickly and it’s a heck of a lot easier when you copy to start with and then do your own thing subsequently.
We also learned much about the Apple design aesthetic (as we did about Samsung’s willingness to be “flexible” with theirs), and importance of design in products. But this has created an interesting problem for Apple – on the one hand they are seen in the public mind as innovators, on the other they’ve very clearly established the importance of their design language. The consequences of this friction is nor apparent in the reaction to the iPhone 5 which looks very similar to the iPhone 4, yet fans were expecting something… different. In the fans mind they want radical change, not this incremental stuff. They want their cake and eat it, and with that Apple has given itself a bit of a headache. Added to this, whilst Samsung’s design department clearly took a holiday when Samsung responded to the original iPhone, they have just as clearly been working hard with subsequent models. Few could say now that Samsung copies Apple now, and efforts by Apple to have current Samsung models removed from shelves look like acts of a desperate monopolist.

The fog of (marketing) war is lifted

The final narrative is I believe the most interesting and consequential one for Apple – the maturity of the smartphone market. When the iPhone 4 came out Apple was still the biggest player in the smartphone market, at least in terms of perception. The change from the curved iPhone 3 to the sharp edges of the 4 gave some feeling of advancement, but really Apple had done what they usually do – take the best of what is out there, make it more user friendly and put it into a well made product (aerial issues aside). This was enough to satisfy the majority of the market – to the majority of consumers, Apple was still the leader other brands weren’t up to scratch and the iPhone was the best phone… of course. This of course was very much wrong, faster development cycles put makers like Samsung and HTC ahead of the Apple by the time the 4 came out, but reality and consumer perception are often mutually exclusive.
This time the iPhone 5 faces a very different market. In the intervening years other manufacturers have been busy, in the last 12 months makers like HTC (with the HTC One) and Samsung (Galaxy series) have taken a bigger market share and with it a much greater share of consumer perception – they also look, feel and work great. Whereas previous iPhones were (wrongly) assumed to be best on the market, consumers are now willing to look around the market before making a decision on a new phone. What consumers see now is a thriving smartphone market, with great devices, interesting differences in platforms with the addition of Microsoft’s Metro, manufacturers adding customised software like HTC Sense and an ever growing list of useful features. Coming into this market, with this level of customer awareness, Apple did what it always does – take a range of excellent (though reasonably common) features, and package them into an elegant, well-made and user-friendly smartphone.
Sadly the market has caught up to and passed Apple in recent years… worse for Apple, the majority of consumers now know it.

Would I buy one though?

Despite all I’ve just said, I quite like the iPhone 5… it’s first one I’ve thought I could actually own. I look at the smartphone market now and I see Apple assuming a position similar to the one it has in the computer market. As the market continues to grow and fragment, Apple should focus on what it does best, making excellent products that people will use. I like the sales pitch – smaller, slipper, lighter, faster. But mostly I suspect it’s the contrarian in me. To me in recent years the iPhone was too popular to be cool… the iPhone was the default choice of an uncritical market. But the iPhone 5 finds itself in a world which it no longer controls… and I like an underdog!

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