Casual Friday: On the iPhone 5 (Or Whatever It Will Be Called)

Here’s Henry Blodget, writing for Business Insider:

Over the past few days, the latest round of purported pictures of Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 5 have hit the web.

And I can’t be the only potential customer who is deflated by what they see.

In fact, I’ll go far enough to say that, if the iPhone 5 looks like the pictures that have recently appeared, Apple may be screwed.

Normally, I can’t stand link-bait articles like this, and ‘screwed’ is nothing but hyperbole for the sake of cheap web traffic. But I think there’s a bit of truth in what Blodget writes.

The ‘leaked’ pictures of the forthcoming iPhone 5 (I don’t think it will be called this; remember the de-numeralizing of the latest iPad) look startlingly like an iPhone 4S, which was released last year. The iPhone 4S is an exact replica of the iPhone 4, released in Fall of 2010. So, Apple is working with a design that’s a solid two years old.

It’s a great design, mind you. It’s the only device on the market that summons a Zen-like minimalism coupled with a Leica or Deiter Rams-esque sense of timeless industrial design. Banished antenna issues aside, the current design we have is a triumph.

A two year old triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. The iPhone 4/4S doesn’t look old compared to modern smartphones. It only looks old because we know it hasn’t been updated in two years. If Appler were to release it anew today, everyone would be impressed. That’s a testament to its still-fledgling timelessness.

Leaked photo of the purported 'next generation' iPhone.

However, things being what they are, if Apple releases a phone with a slightly taller screen (to achieve a 4″ diagonal measurement), LTE and maybe a slightly improved camera and a different back plate, I think most folks will be nonplussed. Yes, it’s an improvement, but people expect more from Apple, especially in this post-Jobs era, when the company’s product direction is under the microscope.

Blodget says:

Because it will make it clear that one observation that many Apple skeptics make is dead-on correct–namely that each new generation of the iPhone offers less and less improvement over the prior generation, and, thus, gives customers less reason to upgrade.

That’s true. The differences between the iPhone 4 and 4S were more RAM, a different CPU/GPU (both of which the average consumer doesn’t care about), a better camera, improved battery life and Siri (all of which are marketable features).

In practice, for your average smartphone user, the only real difference is Siri. And if you read this blog last week, you know my thoughts on Siri: it’s an unfinished, unreliable beta experiment.

The real-world differences between the 4 and 4S are quite small. Apple nonetheless sold a jillion 4S’s, but I wonder how much of that had to do with Steve Jobs’s death and the initial Siri buzz. And if you recall, there was much chagrin over the ‘sameness’ of the iPhone 4S. In the end, it didn’t appear to hurt sales any: the iPhone 4S became Apple’s most popular phone ever.

With the iPhone 5, we think Apple needs to show the world that it’s truly raising the bar again. Rumor says the iPhone 5 was one of the last projects in which Steve Jobs was intimately involved, so I have a hard time believing we’re going to see a 10mm taller iPhone 4S called the iPhone 5 (or whatever). Please pardon my willingness to refuse that the leaks we’re seeing now are actually representative of the final product.

Maybe what we’re looking at is the law of diminishing returns when it comes to consumers becoming tech thrill junkies instead of value seekers: the original iPhone rocked the mobile communications world like nothing else. Everyone had a rush of technocultural dopamine as the iPhone went stratospheric in popularity.

But now we’ve crashed and have the shakes, and we want something revolutionary again. Maybe the reality is that we’re continuing to get innovation, but it will be the little things – camera quality, innovative power charging/connectivity systems, software nuances, ecosystem quality and inter-device integration aspects – that we’re going to enjoy.

Maybe the dopamine will be there after all, just in time-released drips instead of one big rush.

Apple’s culture and management team is too imbued with Steve Jobs and the principles he instilled and fostered. Apple’s not going to rest on its success, but its modern innovation may not be what the mass market thinks – or wants.

After all, that’s the Apple way.

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