Apple, the iPhone 5s, and Innovation

John Gruber, in his review of the new iPhone, says,

You can’t swing a stick and not hit some Apple bear beating the drum that Apple is no longer capable of innovation. They could do it under Steve Jobs, can’t do it without him, and the proof is in the pudding. Under Steve Jobs, Apple released innovative products like clockwork: iPod, iPhone, MacBook Air, iPad. Under Tim Cook, nothing but the same products, slightly improved.

What a pile of crap.

Well, this is a somewhat complicated issue.

Gruber goes into a big riff about how it takes innovation to improve the specs of the 5s in big ways like moving to a 64 bit architecture.  Which just a question of terms.  There’s no one-true-measure of innovation, but the critics that Gruber is engaging are talking about whatever you want to call it when you create new markets and/or grab dominant positions in them.  And Cook’s Apple has not produced one of those.

Now, look, the iPhone 5s was never going to be one of those products.  The “s” updates to the iPhones are a now-long-established tradition that well predates Cook, and their entire purpose is to provide incremental performance updates.  It’s ridiculous to criticize the iPhone 5s for not being a brand new product like the iPad that creates a whole new market.

Indeed, I think I’ll argue that the smartphone market is now mature enough that no update to the iPhone will ever really “innovate” in this sense.  There isn’t really enough “missing” from smartphones that you can capture a huge number of people any more with new features.  Not unless someone comes up with something so incredible that it redefines what a smartphone is.

But taking a step back from the iPhone 5s and the iPhone, it remains true that Apple’s climb to being the company that it is was on a staircase that looks like this:  iPod, iPhone, iPad.  Each of those products was a market-defining, dominant product that brought the company legions of new, dedicated fans.  Like, say, John Gruber.

And it’s also true that Apple has seemingly intentionally ducked the kind of intense competition needed to retain its market dominance in the smartphone space at least (and, I think, in the next few years, the tablet space as well), ceding the mass market to Android and retaining very high unit profits in exchange.  That’s wise if Apple can roll those huge profits into new market-defining products that continue that stepladder to the stars, without devoting a huge portion of its corporate energies into grubbing around in more-and-more commoditized markets.  It’s less wise if Apple doesn’t have another step to take past the iPad.

It’s getting to be time for that next step for Apple.  The iPod came out in 2001.  The iPhone, 2007.  The iPad, 2010.  Apple is a strong company, and it’s not a crisis if it takes another year and then they make something blockbuster.  But it has had a market-dominating product for this entire millennium.  If the iPad does recede in the tablet market, without a new product that replaces it, some of the luster that the company has had will go with it.

All that aside, what about the 5s?

The fingerprint ID is reportedly very sweet, and while the biometrics are probably not strong enough for really good security, for the 99.9% of us who aren’t carrying nuclear launch codes on our phones, it sounds like it’s fine.  And I’m sure it’s blazingly fast.  But unless you’re dedicated to upgrading yearly to everything that Apple produces (in which case, why are you reading reviews?), I can’t in good conscience recommend an “S” model — any “S” model.  This is Apple.  Next year’s phone is going to be just as fast, will have the fingerprint sensor, and will have the sexy new form factor, that will not obsolete itself until your contract is up anyway.


One thought on “Apple, the iPhone 5s, and Innovation

  1. Pingback: Biometric “Security” | Sandor at the Zoo

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