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The iPhone 5: Not as innovative as Android and WP8 handsets

For the last half a decade now, the mobile industry has largely arranged itself around the announcements of Apple’s iPhones. These devices set the standard for what a phone could and should be. At the same time, Android, webOS, and Windows Phone struggled to get off the ground, with widely varying levels of success. The freshly launched iPhone 5 is undeniably the best iPhone yet (as Apple likes to say), but in many ways it feels like Apple is spinning its wheels at the worst possible time.

On the hardware side, Apple has finally decided to move away from the 3.5in touchscreen that has been the hallmark of iPhone design since 2007. I would say, however, that it was done in a strange way. The iPhone 5 sports a 4in IPS LCD at 1136 x 640 resolution. Both Android and the upcoming Windows Phone devices are higher resolution at 1280 x 720. The iPhone 5 screen is 16:9 format, which Apple was keen to point out. That might be notable if Android devices hadn’t been there long before. The choice of resolution also means that old iOS apps will be letterboxed. Android natively supports app scaling to many different display sizes, but iOS does not.

The rest of the hardware is really nothing to write home about. Apple’s new handset has a faster dual-core processor, but lots of phones do. It has LTE, which is also commonplace. There’s no NFC, which I still think is a mistake even without a payment platform (sharing content with NFC is extremely handy). Instead of adding interesting hardware features, it seems like Apple spent its time making the phone very pretty.

There were plenty of rumours about what Apple was going to do with those extra pixels on the iPhone’s screen. Surely the previous iOS 6 announcement wouldn’t have revealed everything, right? Actually, there was no grand plan to revolutionise the interface – the extra resolution went to another row of icons. This seems like the most boring use Apple could have come up with.

The home screen experience might not be getting any better on the iPhone, but it’s constantly improving on both Android and WP8. Take for example the sizing and placement improvements for widgets in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It’s easier than ever to make use of apps and data with some well-chosen widgets. Better notifications in Android 4.1 also make it a faster process to see what’s happening without opening a ton of apps.

Windows Phone 8’s home screen improvements with dynamic tiles go a long way towards making the OS easier to use. Tiles can be sized however you like to show different amounts of data. It’s like a very clever combination of icons and widgets. Glance-able information like this is extremely useful to have on a phone, but Apple isn’t moving in that direction at all – even with more pixels to play with.

Looking at the rest of iOS 6 on the iPhone 5, you’ll see a lot of features from other platforms. Apple has moved away from Google Maps, deploying its own mapping experience in iOS 6. The company made a point of talking up turn-by-turn navigation, but Android has had this feature for years. Windows Phone has also included it on some devices in the past, with all phones getting turn-by-turn in Windows Phone 8.

Things are getting better with each iteration of Android and Windows Phone. Apple seems to think it’s figured out the right way to do things, so it isn’t anxious to rock the boat. Still, here we are with Android phones selling better than iPhones, and Microsoft willing to polish Windows Phone 8 until you have no choice but to love it. This isn’t the time for Apple to just play catch up – the iPhone 5 should have leapfrogged the competition, not duplicated old innovations.

Incidentally, if you want to read more on the battle between the iPhone 5 and rival high-end Android/WP8 handsets, take a look at our spec comparisons of Apple’s smartphone and the Nokia Lumia 920 here, and the Samsung Galaxy S III here.