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The iPhone 5: A reactionary compromise

Apple
by Sebastian Anthony, 15 Sep 2012
The iPhone 5: A reactionary compromise

Apple’s iPhone 5 can be summed up with the following words: Another row of home screen icons.

Watching Tim Cook and Phil Schiller unveil the sixth-generation iPhone was like experiencing the world’s most drawn out (120 minute!) train wreck. It’s not that the iPhone 5′s hardware specs are disappointing (though they’re certainly not overwhelming), it’s how the smartphone was presented that pushed me over the edge.

Apple has this way of presenting everything – whether it’s an awesome new display or a humdrum headphone jack – in such a way that you should feel blessed, as if Steve Jobs himself has sat atop Mount Sinai, received divine inspiration from Him, and then somehow transcended the laws of physics to bring you the most glorious technological manna.

Normally, once you cut through the heavenly hyperbole, there is just enough meat to keep people happy: In 2010, the Retina display really was cutting edge; in 2011, Siri was unique. This year, though, Apple tried to convince us that it had stolen a 16:9 display from the gods, ushering widescreen into the realm of the mortals – but as we all know, everyone except for Apple has been doing 16:9 for years.

As the audience tittered, Apple pressed play on a breathless, forged-in-heart-of-Mount-Doom video introducing the iPhone 5. Starring Jony Ive, the industrial design master behind almost all of Apple’s products, the video further reinforces how Apple redesigned the entire handset to magically squeeze a 16:9 phone into an even smaller chassis.

Don’t get me wrong: The iPhone 5 is a beautiful phone, and in true Apple fashion its design and construction are probably second to none… but is that really enough? The iPhone 5 is thin and light – but was the iPhone 4S really too fat and heavy? Thin and light smartphones were an exciting concept a couple of years ago, but now it’s the standard – just like the 16:9 display.

If we delve a bit deeper into the hardware side of things, you would be hard pushed to find any new features except for the single-chip GSM/CDMA/LTE radio – but even here, Apple is simply using Qualcomm’s new 28nm MDM9615 modem, which will soon appear in other smartphones as well.

Yes, the iPhone 5 is the launch vehicle for the new A6 SoC – but we have to assume, from Apple’s uncharacteristic coyness and vague performance claims, that this chip isn’t going to blow away the competition. The A6′s CPU is apparently twice as fast as the A5 – but considering the A5 is two years old, that isn’t saying much. The Snapdragon S4, which is already twice as fast as the A5, has been on the market for a while – and the Cortex-A15 Exynos 5, which should be even faster, is arriving soon.

With this in mind, remember that Apple itself is hyper-aware of the iPhone 5′s technological mediocrity. Apple knows that it no longer competes with other smartphones in terms of screen resolution or processor performance – but it also knows that it still has, undoubtedly, the best industrial design division and supply chain in the market, possibly the world. This is why Apple’s iPhone 5 launch event quickly glossed over its features and focused almost entirely on its immaculately conceived design.

Compromise

The end result, though, despite Apple’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, is a phone that isn’t revolutionary, or even evolutionary; it’s reactionary.

The best confirmation of this is the iPhone 5′s larger, 4in 16:9 display. Since its inception, Apple’s iOS platform had been fixed at an aspect ratio of either 4:3 or 3:2, with a very limited range of screen resolutions. The first three iPhones had 480 x 320 displays (3:2), and then the iPhone 4′s Retina display exactly doubled the resolution to 960 x 640; ditto, the iPad started at 1024 x 768 (4:3), then doubled to 2048 x 1536. This meant that a single iPhone app developed for the original iPhone still looked perfect on the iPhone 4S. These fixed ratios/resolutions are one of the main reasons for Apple’s strong app ecosystem.

The iPhone 5, however, has a 16:9 1136 x 640 display; it’s the same width as the iPhone 4/4S, but it’s 176 pixels taller. Rather than do something interesting with this space, though, Apple will simply letterbox all 3:2 apps – all 700,000 of them in the App Store. If you can believe it, you will actually get black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Tellingly, there isn’t a single photo of what this letterboxing looks like on the Apple website.

Apps can be redesigned to use this additional space, of course – but then what happens if you try to use a 16:9 app with a 3:2 device, such as the hundreds of millions of iPhones already in circulation? Will developers have to maintain multiple versions of each app, just like on Android? Apple has been very quiet on this matter.

It seems like Apple felt compelled to increase the iPhone’s screen size, but at the same time it couldn’t summon up the marketing cojones to introduce a phone that was both larger and heavier than the iPhone 4S. As a result, the iPhone 5 feels a lot like a compromise – we get a larger screen and a thinner chassis, but at the same time Apple weakens its ecosystem and under delivers on the hardware specification.

Will Apple’s compromise actually affect sales of the iPhone 5? My gut instinct says yes – but I’m not an Apple zealot, nor am I an average consumer who dreams of one day owning a beautiful Apple product. I must also remember that almost every aspect of the iPhone 5 was leaked before the official unveil, which undoubtedly ameliorated any excitement.

I think consumers are brighter than Apple gives them credit for, though. Consumers will compare the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5, and realise that they’re not getting much for their money, especially if they factor in the latest Samsung or Nokia superphone (while you're here, you might want to take a look at our iPhone 5 head-to-head spec comparisons with the Galaxy S III and Lumia 920). But then again, watching the video below, maybe I’m wrong – maybe consumers really couldn’t care less about Apple’s compromise.

You can win an iPhone 5 in our iPhone 5 competition by answering a simple question about what generation the Phone 5 isCheck ITProPortal live report on Apple’s announcement. Other than theiPhone 5, we saw new iPod devices but no cheaper version of the iPhone 4S, an iPad mini and potentially a 13in Macbook Pro with Retina Display.

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