Apple In Transition

September 12th, 2012

Mat Honan describes the iPhone 5 as “the Toyota Prius of phone updates”:

Yes, it’s better than the iPhone 4S or the iPhone 4 or just about any other phone you can buy. It’s faster with a bigger screen and an LTE antenna so you can suck up data from your carrier like Michael Phelps at a table full of pizza. But mostly it is the Toyota Prius of phone updates. It is an amazing triumph of technology that gets better and better, year after year, and yet somehow is every bit as exciting as a 25 mph drive through a sensible neighborhood at a reasonable time of day. It’s not going to change your life. It’s not even going to offer a radically different experience.

It’s a weird paradox. The iPhone 5 can simultaneously be the best phone on the market and really, really boring. And that has almost nothing to do with Apple and everything to do with our expectations.

I think that’s exactly right. The iPhone 5 looks like a terrific update (I’m especially looking forward to it as an upgrade over my iPhone 4′s camera), but there’s nothing here that’s going to dramatically change our experience with phones.

Part of the reason for that is we’ve gotten used to dramatic releases from Apple in the past decade. The iPod, iPod Nano, iPhone, MacBook Air and iPad are all incredibly original and important releases that made new things possible. In that context, a very good update is going to seem boring.

But there’s something more here, too. We are now more than five years into the modern smartphone era, where our phones are small computers in our pockets, and at this point, the iPhone is very far along. I think we are very close to the platonic ideal of what a mobile phone should look like; it’s thin and light, but still enough there to hold comfortably, and a beautiful screen dominates the device. Since they are entirely about the software, the hardware necessarily takes a back seat in importance. At this point, possible improvements to this basic idea of what a smartphone is are very difficult to achieve and are going to mostly be incremental. That’s the nature of improving something that’s already quite good.

At the same time, Apple’s at a transition point in two ways. First, with iCloud, they’re moving away from the Mac being the center of our digital world, and toward one where the cloud is. In this new model, our data follows us wherever we go, no matter what device we are using. Second, Apple is pushing Siri along to where it can act as an interface to computing devices that’s good enough to replace direct manipulation (touch, mouse and keyboard) for many tasks.

These transitions are important because, combined, they allow Apple to create entirely new kinds of devices. If our data (email, contacts, calendar, music, applications and application data) follows us wherever we go, and we can interact with devices through voice, our computing devices won’t need to be limited to devices with relatively large screens and keyboards. Apple will be able to create, for example, watch-like devices which replace many functions of our smartphones but do so without being quite as obtrusive. They’ll be able to build a television which instantly has all of our data and media and that we can control without a remote. You’ll be able to use the right device for what you’re doing. If you’re watching a movie, you’ll use the television; if you’re out for a run or swim, you’ll use the (waterproof?) watch; if you’re working on an article or paper while on a flight, you’ll grab the iPad. But you’ll never worry about where your files are.

I don’t know if those things are specifically what Apple will build, or even whether they’ll be able to fully deliver on their promise, but I have to think that Apple is working toward building devices that very much are computers, but don’t work like computers in the way we’re used to. If that’s the case, we’re in a transition period for Apple where they’re getting the pieces in place for great changes in the future. (iPhone and iPad getting LTE, and the networks filling out their own networks with ubiquitous and high-speed data access are certainly a part of that.) We’re bound to feel a little bored while the foundation is being laid.