Now that we've heard new product announcements from Nokia, Motorola, and Amazon, the next big gadget announcement is expected to be the iPhone 5, which Apple is slated to unveil next Wednesday. (We can assume it will indeed be called the iPhone 5, given the shadowy "5" that appears on the invite, shown above). While much about the new phone is pretty much a given, I think Apple is under pressure to come up with something unexpected.
For the past five years – since the introduction of the first iPhone – Apple has unveiled unique features that really differentiated its designs. The original iPhone was the first smartphone that combined a large colour screen, a great touch interface, and a wonderful web browsing experience. Earlier phones had some of those features, but not the combination of them all.
The following year, Apple added the App Store and the iPhone 3G, pretty much defining the modern smartphone. In subsequent years, others would try to catch up, but Apple has stayed ahead, often with surprising features. For instance, last year it introduced Siri and although I haven't found her particularly useful, she certainly gave Apple a marketing angle no one could match.
But now the situation has changed.
Recent Android phones, especially with the new Jelly Bean update, are pretty much as smooth to use as the iPhone 4S and have arguably faster processors (manufactured on newer process technology), 4G LTE connections, and larger screens. Google’s voice recognition system is arguably even better than Siri.
Windows Phone, though still a tiny presence in the market, has been improving as well, and the new Windows Phone 8 models look more competitive. So, although iPhone sales have remained strong, Apple must play catch-up on features, a rarity for the company in the phone market.
That said, what can we expect this coming Wednesday? I expect to see an iPhone with a larger screen, but probably not as big as the largest Android phones (in part because a lot of people don't want to carry a phone that big.) I expect to see a faster, newer processor; LTE support; and near field communications (NFC) for payments, and to take advantage of the Passbook feature Apple showed off at its developer conference. I also expect to see some real improvements in Siri.
All of that is good, but it won't be truly enough to differentiate the iPhone. Sure, Apple has its familiar look and many customers love living in the Apple ecosystem where their iPhone syncs with other iOS devices via iCloud and iTunes. Apple is unlikely to change any of that. The ecosystem and the iPhone's vaunted ease of use will keep the iPhone popular for a long time, but it's hardly something to make the product stand out.
This is Apple I'm talking about – a company that over the past 15 years has gained a deserved reputation as an innovator that is able to surprise us with something new. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs used to love ending his famous keynotes with "one more thing" to really get the crowd excited. I'm not sure what Apple has in mind this time as the much-rumoured iPad mini seems to be a bit further off, but I'm hoping it has something. In other words, it's time for "one more thing" once again.
Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.
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