Not one, but two new iPhones. Not one, but two chips. Not one flash element, but two. Not more pixels, but more light. Not a new screen size, but a new home button. Apple’s latest product release wasn’t as much about “… the right path to take …” as it was about the path not taken.
That being said, some of the technological innovations are noteworthy, if not necessarily as mind-blowing as Jobs-era Apple devotees have come to expect. From a technologist’s point of view, here were the sound moves:
- Splitting the line. Dividing iPhone 5 into the C and S lines is good technology – and good business. There’s a big market out there for those who aspire to flash the Apple logo, but not pay the premium price. The choice of a polycarbonate shell is also smart, keeping down the cost while preserving the premium brand value of the upscale model. The big question here is: is it cheap enough?
- 64-bit microprocessor. The A7 is a smart move, and a smart response from Apple to quad processors like Samsung Galaxy S4’s Snapdragon 800 quad processor. With iOS 6 and the upcoming 7, Apple has more control over their micro architecture than Android has, so it makes more sense to unleash the power of 64-bit processing while others add more cores. The big question here is: is it fast enough?
- The Motion Coprocessor. A very interesting response to Samsung’s Galaxy Gear watch, on a lot of levels. It makes sense in the way that a graphics coprocessor does, and the combination of the now-ubiquitous sensors of acceleration, gyroscope and compass into a continuously monitored and integrated sensor array, complemented by the CoreMotion API, should thrill developers almost as much as the A7. And Nike’s immediate jump onto this bandwagon with the Nike+ Move app is probably a great first example. The big question here is: is it a precursor for an iWatch?
- Bigger aperture and pixels, dual flash. As with more processing cores, so with pixels in digital photography; the strategy of competitors has been to add more in order to improve performance. But optics is optics, and the simple science is that if you can smack more photons into a photoreceptor, you theoretically ought to be able to goose the performance. A lot of the camera features touted in the new iPhone 5 were “catch-up” (e.g., slow motion capture and burst mode), but improving the optics and the equally bright move of having dual-toned flash elements that deliver the optimal ‘heat’ for the lighting are smart steps toward better photography. The big question here is: will users see the difference?
- Touch ID home button. Apple’s acquisition last year of AuthenTec made this almost a foregone conclusion, but it’s still a great example of the Jony Ive’s mantra of “more useful and more elegant” and of the blurring of hardware and software in subservience to the user experience. The iTunes purchase authorization is also a no-brainer smart move in this regard. The big question here is: is there an alternate sign-on for icy cold outdoor winter fingers? We assume so.
So much for the Path Taken. Equally notable are the Paths Not Taken. Top of that list has to be the decision not to change screen size, or pixel count (and density). The number one comment I hear when people see an S4 for the first time is “look at that screen.” At an eye-pleasing 441 pixels per inch, the 1920X1080 S4 screen is like crystal meth for the eyes – once you’ve tried it, you’re pretty well hooked (see comparison of two a’s, Galaxy S4 is on the right). Time will tell if Apple succumbs to the chant of ‘You scream, I scream, we all scream for more screen.”
And there are many other me-too’s not pursued, like the lack of Near Field Communications. Instead, Apple has apparently chosen to go with a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) solution in iOS 7, called iBeacon. Other cool features like the Galaxy’s Air View, Smart Scroll and Smart Pause also didn’t make the cut. One can’t dismiss the possibility that some of the choices are driven by recent patent wars. If so, it’s not exactly the customer-centric vision that Jobs espoused. – JTS