Why the iPhone 5 is Too Radical



You’ve heard the collective judgement by the tech echo chamber: The new iPhone was just like the old iPhone, only taller.

The iPhone 5 is boring. Apple is too conservative. They didn’t really change the phone, but only made minor tweaks.

And that’s what’s wrong with the iPhone 5: It’s just not radical enough.

Here’s the problem: The echo chamber not only got this wrong, they got it backward.

The trouble with the iPhone 5 is that it’s too much, too soon.

Let me explain. 

The Apple Way

The iPhone 5 is considered to be an iterative upgrade because it failed to live up to our unmoored fantasies about what Apple should have done.

Apple should have added fingerprint readers and NFC chips and a new digital wallet system far exceeding the current tickets-and-boarding-passes Passbook app. Most of all, the iPhone 5 was supposed to have “one more thing” — some shocking surprise that floored everybody. (What was this supposed to be? A Star Wars Hologram feature? A built-in bottle opener? What?)

But these fantasies are inconsistent with Apple’s reality.

Apple is the ultimate “Why?” company. Every new feature faces a harsh spotlight of inquiry. Why is now the right time to launch an NFC-based digital wallet? (It’s not the right time.) Why is now the right time to add a fingerprint reader. (It’s not.) Why add a hologram?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, far too many people assume that Apple either is, or should be, like Google — a “Why not?” company.

Should we support NFC? Should we launch a digital wallet? Should we build a robotic Prius? Should we develop augmented reality glasses and launch those glasses by doing a live Google+ hangout with skydivers jumping out of a blimp over San Francisco? Google says: Why not?

When people compare iPhone upgrade expectations, they look out over the vast smart phone industry and expect Apple to leapfrog every feature on 1,000 handset models with its one phone.

A better way to understand the iPhone is to compare it to the Mac.

Why People Buy New Macs

Most people who buy new Macs don’t buy them because Apple just announced a radical new feature set. Instead, they start with the need for a new desktop or laptop computer. The old one is too slow, or worn out or just obsolete.

So they go to the Apple store and get whatever the latest model is, and the best one they can reasonably afford.

There’s an unspoken assumption that the latest Mac will be the greatest Mac. And that tends to be true.

Apple upgrades Macs conservatively and unidirectionally. In other words, almost every feature that changes in a new Mac is a change for the better — faster processors, better battery, better screens, better everything, for the most part. Apple does a lot of internal engineering under the hood that improves the user experience in a large number of small ways.

As a result of this approach, Mac fans believe (as I do) that iMacs, MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs are the best computers you can buy for the price range.

They’re better not because they’re radical, or filled with whatever technology is possible to cram into them, but because they’re expertly but conservatively improved generation after generation, and they focus on features and technologies that offer the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users.

The overall look and feel of new Macs is usually the same as old Macs (except for rare generational shifts). Apple tends not to experiment with wild new form factors, and exotic technologies because their goal is to thrill the greatest number of customers with the fewest number of models.

Why People Buy New iPhones

New-feature lust is a phenomenon driven by the tiny minority of people who make their livings writing about technology. We wallow in every detail of every major consumer electronics device. And it’s never enough for us.

We advocate Google’s augmented reality glasses not because we’ve analyzed the consumer marketplace and considered human psychology and social behavior and determined that this technology is something desired by hundreds of millions of everyday consumers.

No, we advocate them because we’re bored, and we want to try them ourselves.

The vast majority of prospective iPhone buyers have a completely different perspective from the “pundits” who dominate the public conversations about consumer electronics.

Like Mac buyers, iPhone buyers buy iPhones because they want a new phone — their two-year waiting period is up, and they get the discounted upgrade again. By that time, the two-year-old iPhone is damaged or obsolete or both. They would like to assume that the latest iPhone is the greatest iPhone in every detail.

And that’s why the iPhone 5 is disappointing. Instead of every feature being better, the iPhone 5 is a mixed bag.

Why the iPhone 5 Is Too Radical

The iPhone 5 is better than its predecessors. But it could have, and should have, been far better than it in fact is.

There are major user-experience aspects to the iPhone 5 that are provably and measurably worse than its predecessor. And the reason for these downgrades is that Apple pushed too aggressively into bold new areas all at once.

For example, Apple decided to get too aggressive with both size and performance. These are laudable goals, but they didn’t quite pull it off.

Yes, iPhone 5 is the fastest major smartphone currently available, that I’m aware of. And they also got very close to shipping the thinnest smart phone.

But to achieve these radical goals, they skimped on battery life. Rather than improving battery life — a usability issue desperately in need of improvement — they instead kept it the same in a best-case scenario, and degraded it in the worst case.

They also compromised on materials. Instead of the glass-backed iPhone 4S, which looked beautiful but was thick and heavy, we now get an aluminum housing, which scratches and scuffs easily and visibly — something Apple reassuringly tells us is “normal.”

Apple’s radical new Lighting adaptor, neither compatible nor standard, is actually really cool. It performs some neat tricks to enable you to plug it in with either side up. But while it moves charging and wired data connectivity forward, it moves usability temporarily backward. Millions of homes and hotels rooms have iPhone-compatible clock radios and other docks and accessories. Now everyone has to cope with adaptors at added hassle and expense.

Likewise, there’s going to be a long adjustment period to the new screen aspect ratio. The majority of apps will site bogusly in the center until they can be re-written.

It sounds like I’m complaining about the iPhone 5. I’m not.

What I’m saying is that Apple fundamentally changes a large number of major usability issues all at once in the same upgrade.

Unlike upgrades for Macs, the iPhone upgrade makes progress on some features at the expense of others.

We get performance and size improvements, but at the expense of battery life and aesthetics.

We get a new adaptor technology, but at the expense of compatibility, cost and convenience.

Given Apple’s One-Phone-To-Rule-Them-All strategy, the upgrade is too radical in a bad way for everyday users.

More to the point, the idea that the iPhone 5 isn’t radical enough is a misconception based on a fantasy.

Comparing the iPhone to what we imagine Apple might do is just lazy and self indulgent.

But comparing the iPhone to other Apple lines in the context of Apple’s larger strategy makes perfect sense.

And by that comparison, the iPhone changes too much, too fast and too soon.