This is a special guest post by Ari Matchen, a GadgetGuide reader. If you’re interested in guest posting for us, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved Apple. I painted a giant apple on my wall when I was ten. I’ve read the Steve Jobs biography twice, and when he died in 2011 I hung a framed picture of him in my room. To this day, every device I use was designed by Apple in California. There’s a magic feeling that comes with unboxing a new Apple product. I felt it for the first time when I got the original iPod shuffle. It was like nothing I had ever seen: completely white and shockingly simple. I felt it again when my father unboxed his iPhone 4. That product was a work of art. With glass on both sides and polished aluminum around the edges, it looked like it had been plucked from the future and dropped into 2010. That was part of the magic surrounding Apple – they kept inventing the next big thing, and you could have one.
In recent years though, it feels more and more like iPhones are losing that forward-thinking quality. Today, any innovation made to the iPhone feels either forced or expected. The verdict is in: when it comes to the iPhone, the magic is gone.
In business, if you can’t be first you must be better or cheaper. Nothing from Apple is cheap, but the original iPhone was a combination of first and best. It was not the first touch-screen phone, but it was the first to ship with multi-touch, which allowed the user interface to work better than any phone preceding it. It was not the first phone that used apps, but it was the first to introduce the App Store, a catalog of every add-on program for your phone. These same principles were applied to each new product Apple introduced in the 2000’s, notably the iPod and iPad. Mp3 players existed before the iPod, just as tablets existed before the iPad; Apple saw the future of both industries, and what innovations they did not get to first, they made up for by doing better than the competition.
Today Apple is neither first nor better. (And it’s still not cheap.)
The first major hint that Apple was losing its grip on what’s next came in 2011, when Samsung announced the original Galaxy Note, featuring a 5.3-inch screen. The phone was ridiculed for it’s “obnoxious” size. Apple’s largest offering at that time was the 3.5-inch screen on the iPhone 4S. The iPhone fit comfortably in your palm; who would possibly want a phone you could barely fit in your pocket?
Apparently, a lot of us did.
The Galaxy Note sold over a million units in its first two months, and it signaled the birth of the unfortunately named, “phablet”. Seeing the growing market share of Samsung and their new large phone niche, Apple was forced to release the slightly stretched iPhone 5 and 5S, followed by the dramatically expanded iPhone 6 and 6S, far larger phones than their predecessors. Steve Jobs used to say that customers didn’t know what they wanted until Apple showed them. When Apple relented and finally released the 4.7-inch iPhone 6, it signaled the end of that mentality. For the first time in a long time, Apple didn’t know what the consumer wanted. Today the iPhone 6S Plus boasts a 5.5 inch screen, bigger than that “obnoxious” Galaxy Note.
The introduction of the iPhone 6S in 2015 exposed how lackluster Apple’s attempts at staying relevant were. The tagline for the phone was, “The only thing that’s changed is everything”. Apparently, “everything” doesn’t include basic phone design. Or user interface. Or screen resolution. Even to insinuate that everything changed with the iPhone 6S is laughable. The camera was slightly better, the processor was faster, the metal was stronger. But how many of these are features people actually care about? The only real innovations in the iPhone 6S were Live Photo and 3D touch, which looked great in commercials but added little to the user experience.
The most disturbing part of the iPhone 6S rollout for me was the deeper meaning that the tagline seemed to imply. It’s as if Apple knew that nothing had really changed. Apple is no longer concerned with producing the best products they can. All they care about is putting out a new phone every year, and getting a catchy slogan from the marketing department to make it seem like a game-changer. Perhaps in a perfect world, Apple would wait more than a year to put out a new phone, in order to deliver something truly special. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. Apple needs to keep pumping out phones to give the appearance of consistency, even at the expense of quality.
The iPhone 6S is now part of the past, and Apple needs to look to the future. You would think after such a low-profile update with the iPhone 6S, Apple would have to be planning something big for the iPhone 7. If you thought that I sympathize, because I did too. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the iPhone 7 will closely resemble the iPhone 6S, with a few key differences: the camera will be better, the processor will be faster, and the phone will be thinner. If you are currently experiencing déjà vu, know that you are not alone. Apple has used those same selling points over and over. Does anyone even care about how thin their phone is anymore?
To be fair, the reason the phone may be thinner is the removal of the headphone jack, which is a big change, but not one that users are clamoring for. I for one am not overly excited about the day when I have to listen to music through the charging port. Apple has established a pattern of introducing a major update to the iPhone, such as the iPhone 6, and following it with a smaller update the next year, such as the iPhone 6S. In this case, it seems Apple is waiting to introduce a major update for 2017, while in 2016 they will introduce an utterly disappointing iPhone 7. That would make for the least innovative run of iPhones in its history.
The problem for Apple isn’t just their reputation and narrative changing; it’s their sales. For the first time since its introduction in 2007, iPhone sales dropped this year. The iPhone is Apple’s largest revenue stream, and its lackluster sales led to a significant drop in the company’s overall revenue. Apple CEO Tim Cook attributed this to, “strong macroeconomic headwinds,” but the economy was not the only cause of this drop. Other phones have caught up to the functionality of the iPhone, and they are much cheaper. The iPhone 6S costs $650, while very capable smartphones are emerging in the $300 to $400 range. It is becoming harder to justify spending the extra cash on an iPhone when these cheaper smartphones keep getting better.
So why do people like me still have iPhones? There are many reasons; however, the most relevant is that having an iPhone is like being in an exclusive club. If you have an iPhone, you have access to iMessage, an internet-based messaging service that allows you to be a part of group chats with other iPhone users. If you have an Android, you cannot be a part of these groups. It’s like getting stopped at the door of a club as your friends breeze through security. Beyond iMessage, simply holding the iPhone exudes superiority. Whether it’s the unmistakable circular home button or the silver Apple on the back, you know an iPhone when you see one. It used to be Blackberry that held the top spot. Everyone wanted a Blackberry so they could be a part of BBM. Perhaps Apple is on the cusp of the same irrelevancy that took Blackberry down. Only time will tell.
I still love iPhone. I love how from front to back the phone feels finished. However, every day it seems more and more like complacency rather than true quality. The iPhone doesn’t excite me anymore; it feels like a part of the past. My iPhone works just fine for now, but as soon as it’s time for an upgrade I’m done with it. I’ll find a phone that is pushing the boundaries and actually excites me. I don’t believe that there is no innovation left in the smartphone industry, but apparently Apple does. That is not an easy thing for me to admit. I don’t know why the company I’ve been so loyal to has stopped innovating; maybe it’s because their legendary leader is gone. I do know that something needs to change quickly. The magic is gone, and I think Steve Jobs would be disappointed with the people now running the company he built. I think that if he could, he’d take one look at the executives who have been thinking the same way for so many years, and shout two words at them: