Wednesday, September 10, 2014

That iPhone bump and what it means for Apple

I haven't posted here in a very long time. This will probably be my last post on technology for a while. I have been thinking a lot of how I can make writing a blog interesting again. It's time to write about other stuff.

But I can't avoid spending a few minutes writing about Apple's new product announcements yesterday, because it represents a pivotal point in Apple's history, but not necessarily for the reasons that are outwardly obvious.

A new iPhone 6 and the Watch. Both are technical achievements that illustrate Apple's technical abilities. Faster, thinner and also bigger, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus represent another chapter in iPhone physical design, perhaps the biggest change since the iPhone 3. There is the curved glass on the side of the phone that makes it nice to hold. Moving the power/lock button to the side. Details.

But there is weirdness as well. The bump on the back of the phone for the camera? What is that? It is obviously ugly and not finished. I know why they did it; they were so intent on making the phone slimmer (given it's increased screen size) that they couldn't make it any slimmer with the camera module. But it looks terrible. It will be a constant reminder. The phone will not lie flat on a surface. It may snag on stuff and get damaged.

The Watch is also a compromised product. It is not attractive. It is a big thing that sits on the wrist. Not elegant at all like Apple's best products. It looks clunky. The best things about it are the new UI with the "cloud" interface that groups applications in a cluster instead of a grid. Look for it to be copied by other manufactures. But it is tethered to an iPhone to some of it's key features to work. No internal GPS means that it is of marginal use to runners, for instance. It is one more thing you have to carry along, and doesn't do anything that the iPhone already does, other than sit on your wrist. It is a bunch of features (many extraneous - really - I want to send someone my heartbeat?).

The iPhone 6 and the Watch represent an Apple that is looking at the market, and reacting to it, instead of leading it. Samsung can't innovate because they don't have that culture, but they can cram in more features, make stuff bigger, make stuff thinner. But they don't have Apple's ecosystem and tight integration of software and hardware that blur together. Samsung's attempts to brand Android with their own look is half-baked - useable but not something that makes people take a step back in awe. It is serviceable, maybe even attractive, if a little annoying.

But what Samsung did do is make phones bigger. And some people wanted that. Not everyone, but some people. My own opinion is that they look dumb and have a marginalized experience. They won't fit in a pair of pants that fit well, but perhaps a pair of baggy jeans. And I want my device to be unobtrusive.

So Apple made a bigger phone, because it is being reactive and "giving the people what they want". Apple has at times been successful at this - when Apple added Windows support for the iPod, the iPod crushed it's competitors. It was what people wanted all along. When Apple let developers write Apps for the iPhone, instead of just having them create web applications, it creates an incredibly rich eco system.

But the watch represents Apple attempting to find it's way by creating a new product, in a space that is still attempting to make a good rationale for existing at all. It is a product for technically inclined and those that want something just because it is new and shiny.

But not all is glum. Apple's payment system is a stroke of brilliance. They may indeed be the ones to really put the credit card to rest, the same way that the iTunes store started the slow decline of music CD sales. Their health integration framework looks to be better realized that competing environments. It will create a whole little ecosystem for fitness applications. An elliptical trainer that can talk to your iPhone and add in data - most likely.

Apple's software front looks solid. There are a lot of things under the hood of iOS 8 that could be innovative. But their newest products - arguably the biggest changes in a post-Jobs existence, are not a home run. They represent an Apple that is working to be relevant in a world of increased competition.

Will I get a new iPhone, though? Yes, I will. I like the iPhone 6, and it has enough new stuff over my iPhone 5 to make it a good upgrade. But at the same time, it is still incremental, and that camera bump really bothers me. As for the Watch - let's check back in on it in 2 years and see where Apple has gone with the next version, if there is one.