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How Apple can ensure the iPhone reigns as king again

MobileFeatures
by Ryan Whitwam, 26 Jan 2013Features
How Apple can ensure the iPhone reigns as king again

Shortly after the launch of the original iPhone in 2007, it was clear that Apple had a certifiable hit on its hands. It was the first smartphone that earned the name – the first mobile device that could put a smile on your face just by doing its job. But more recently the news has brought stories of production cuts and muted reactions to new devices. The iPhone is still a great phone, but little by little those smiles from 2007 are going away. Let’s take a look at how Apple can turn those frowns upside down.

Hardware

It seems like Apple is adept at setting trends, but not so good at recognising them when the market is moved by its competitors. The current and on-going increase in screen size is the most prominent example.

The company used a 3.5in display until 2012, when it bumped it up to 3.99in on the iPhone 5. It was the right move in spirit, but completely wrong in execution. The screen didn’t get wider at all – just a little taller. This doesn’t make reading or web browsing any better, and the device feels odd because of its stretched proportions. In fact, the software barely takes advantage of it. It almost felt spiteful, like Apple was giving the unwashed masses the larger screen they craved, but at the same time the company was refusing to do anything useful with it.

It’s time Apple reacted to the trend towards larger screens that don’t adhere to Cupertino’s strictly defined ideas about ergonomics. When you look at a device like the Galaxy S3, it’s clear that you can make a phone with a big display that doesn’t end up being unwieldy. A somewhat larger panel needs to happen. A well-designed 4.3in LCD with a thin bezel could work perfectly, and if it’s higher resolution to match the new 1080p Android phones, that’s all the better.

Apple’s proprietary connectors have also become increasingly tiresome as other platforms have standardised on micro-USB. You don’t need to worry about buying expensive cabling just to charge your phone with Android or Windows Phone, but Apple just moved from one proprietary standard to another.

The Lightning connector does some stuff well, such as video output. The reversible plug is also neat, but it’s kind of silly to force users into this in the first place. Apple would get massive amounts of goodwill if the next iPhone at least came with a simple micro-USB adapter bundled. Why not just let users charge their phones with the most common type of phone connector. Including the existing 30-pin adapter is also a possible solution (people have plenty of those around). Apple doesn’t have to stop using Lightning, but £25 for every phone charger is ludicrous.

If Apple continues to follow the tick-tock style of incremental change it has thus far, the next iPhone is going to be a 5S instead of an iPhone 6. That would be a serious error. A spec bump isn’t going to bring the iPhone back to the forefront of the smartphone market.

Software

However, where Cupertino needs to focus most of its attention is the software experience. Why? The iOS platform is the most outdated of any modern OS. Even if you haven’t touched an iPhone in years, you can pick up and use an iPhone 5 with little issue – and that, believe it or not, is a problem. Keeping things consistent to reduce confusion among existing users is certainly something to consider, but it comes at the expense of innovation.

The iPhone’s home screen is so far behind the times it’s almost embarrassing to see Apple still relying on it. The grid of icons is easy, and maybe it made sense when touchscreen interactions with a smartphone were new, but it’s far too limited now.

The iPhone home screen shows no contextual information – even the weather icon is completely static. There is no easy way to sort through your app icons either. You’re left to tediously move them from one screen to the next until you have the apps you use most where you can get at them, and the non-deletable stock apps are shoved off in a folder someplace. Apple absolutely has to rethink the way the home screen works in iOS. It’s the primary way most users interact with the phone, and it’s way behind the competition.

Keeping the home screen simple has also crowded important features into less accessible places. For example, the settings menu for iOS hasn’t gotten any more convenient to use in the last six years. Actually, as more features are added, it’s only gotten more congested. Digging down three levels to toggle a radio button is bizarre when you should just be able to do it from the home screen.

Basically, Apple needs better sorting of apps, and a widget framework – even if it’s limited in scope.

In the same way the simple grid of icons might have made sense when capacitive touchscreens were new, skeuomorphic design helped people get used to a digital environment. Replicating a piece of paper, leather stitching, or a 3D button surface has become a little cheesy, though. I don’t think anyone is impressed by it anymore, and Apple should work on a more mature design language for its chrome before iOS starts looking outright foolish.

Perhaps the biggest bit of negative press Apple got last year was related to Apple Maps. Even if Apple has to buy its own fleet of satellites, it cannot release another device without fixing the issues in Maps. This is the kind of product that should never have gotten past the testing phase. I have to believe Steve Jobs would have refused to release Maps in the state it was in if he was still around. The mea culpa from Tim Cook a few months ago was nice, but it’s time to spend some of that massive cash reserve to make Maps better.

Unlike some of the competition, Apple makes both the hardware and the software in order to put out one monolithic device per year. There are some things that won’t change, and this is probably one of them. Apple is the iPhone – it just needs to make it better. Apple and the iPhone aren’t going anywhere, but 2012 was the first time the iPhone became just another smartphone. The device is still selling briskly right now, but the time to correct your course is not after you’ve hit the iceberg. The time is now.

For further thoughts on the future of the iPhone, have a look at this article: Could a budget iPhone mini help Apple regain smartphone supremacy?

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