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Meet The New iPhone: Almost The Same As The Old iPhone.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled “Apple’s September 12 Event: Bracing For Another Disappointment,” in which I predicted that 2018 would be much like 2017, and 2016, and 2015: instead of introducing exciting, truly innovative products and capabilities, Apple would continue to showcase its post-Jobs culture of uninspired “also-in” incrementalism. 10% more of this, 20% more of that, bigger screen, more pixels, rapid-fire paroxisms of predictable magniloquence… I wanted to be wrong. I really did. As it turns out, I wasn’t. The “event” was as lackluster as I feared it would be.
Credit where credit is due, though: The A12 chip is solid. Its specs are great. 7nm all the way. It’s impressive. And Apple could just have left it at that, without claiming that the A12 is the industry’s first 7nm processor, which… is an interesting claim, given that both Huawei and Qualcomm also produce 7nm processors now, and Samsung may not be too far behind. (Note to Huawei: The Kirin 980’s competition will be Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 855, not the 845.)
So iPhone has a great processor, but it is on par with what premium Android phones will be offering in late 2018 and early 2019 as well. What else did we get? Ah yes. More pixels. More screen size. Incremental improvements. Oh, and more colors. Don’t forget the gorgeous new colors. Aren’t they gorgeous? Here is what I wrote two weeks ago:
Here is what I expect from the event: With regard to the new iPhone, another year of predictable incrementalism. Here’s my go-to template for all Apple product announcements now: “x% more [insert feature here].” That’s mostly it. We’re going on what… year three of this now? Year four? I’ve lost count. So on September 12, what I expect to hear between endless streams of flowery superlatives about the edge-to-edge screen that probably won’t be, and the mystical tactile poetry of the the premium materials chosen to contain iPhone’s soul, is something along the lines of x% more battery life, x% faster processing, x% more glass, x% brighter colors, x% better camera, x% more emojis, and on, and on and on. 10% more of this, 20% more of that. And that will basically be it.
Incrementalism taking the place of innovation.
I wasn’t wrong.
I will refrain from addressing iPhone’s modem problem today, but we will be revisiting it here soon. It won’t just be a 5G compatibility discussion either. I realize that it may be a bit soon for that. The real problem still boils down to download speeds, and Apple’s decision to replace Qualcomm modems with Intel’s is still a head-scratcher for me. (Shouldn’t Apple want to put the best possible gear into its devices?) Anyway. A discussion for another day. Soon.
I don’t really have much to add to the iPhone discussion. The collective sighs of boredom and disappointment were palpable on Twitter and other social media platforms during and after the event. They seem to get a little louder and sadder each year. Outside of the still rather large community of Apple superfans, “Uninspired and Boring” seemed to be the biggest themes in that event’s word cloud. Popular consensus appeared to be that “Apple has lost its touch.” Based on my social feeds, the absurd daisy-chain of scripted beatitudes delivered from the stage and the sitcom-like cadence of applause from the audience inspired more scorn than excitement. As one of my colleagues remarked in private, “Sharks jumping sharks jumping sharks.”
Even Tim Cook’s sartorial choices on what is generally Apple’s most important stage production of the year, raised a few eyebrows. (Ageism has no place in my world, and this next observation isn’t about that. I want to be very clear on this point. But even I have to admit that, optics-wise, a tech CEO probably shouldn’t go out of his way to come across as a resident of a retirement community on the one day when he should be doing everything in his power to convey that he is a youthful spirit with his foot squarely down on the innovation accelerator.) When your company’s reputation is increasingly that you have lost your design touch, your innovation magic, and your ability to keep up with the pace of technology, coming across as a dynamic, culturally-vibrant, and even “cool” CEO does matter. Perhaps if Apple were still pumping out amazing and revolutionary products, Tim Cook’s show-and-tell day wardrobe wouldn’t matter, but that isn’t the world we live in anymore. At least not lately. We are social creatures, visual creatures; we read cultural cues, both obvious and subtle. It may seem petty and irrelevant to point this out, but here we are: Welcome to 2018 and the internet. Everything is analyzed. Every detail matters.
Another detail that also didn’t escape the more astute observers among us is that “iPhone XS” sounds like “iPhone excess.” I think that probably qualifies as a “I’ll just leave this here” bit of social media commentary about where Apple is with its brand right now.
The Apple Watch’s New Market Frontier: Selling Wearables to Boomers (sort of).
On the Apple Watch front, Apple did make smart decisions, and I was wrong about something. here’s what I said the other week:
I doubt that it will introduce any radically new (and useful) capabilities, like tracking blood oxygen saturation levels for instance, or empower users to dive deeper into the monitoring and management of their own health, which is where I think the Apple Watch could really shine.
I haven’t checked into the Series 4’s blood oxygen saturation monitoring capability, but I was wrong about one thing: Apple did empower users to dive deeper into the monitoring and management of their own health. Some of the ECG, advanced HRM, and accidental fall monitoring features were nice additions. Unfortunately, as anyone who tracks their heart rate regularly already knows (like athletes, for instance), a wrist sensor fitted into the back of a watch is unlikely to provide consistent, reliable readings. Those of us who track our heart rates (for medical or athletic reasons) use elastic chest straps and/or other sensors that adhere properly to our skin. So… great idea, and I think that Apple was right to go with it, but Apple should have also released an optional HRM iStrap. (The Apple Watch could use a dongle-like accessory or two, right?) Accessories are where the real money is, Tim.
I was also surprised that Apple seemed under the impression that bringing decades-old HRM features like heart-rate zone alerts to a smart watch was all that innovative. Wearable makers like Polar brought these features to the consumer market twenty years ago. As one of my training partners sneered in a private message during the event, “way to go, Apple. Welcome to 1998!” As for the feature that uses the watch’s accelerometer to detect possible falls, I will skip over the slew of obvious false-alarm scenarios it will have to contend with, and point to the fact that LifeAlert-type wearables have been giving seniors a lifeline to medical help after a fall for decades as well.
Which leads me to a pro/con observation about where Apple may be going with this: On the one hand, I think it is brilliant to be aiming Apple Watch at older users. Healthcare wearables are a huge emerging market. And with younger consumers shunning watches altogether, where could Apple really turn to find growth for the category? Logic: If younger consumers don’t wear watches, market to older consumers. So Apple is. And with the X’er market feeling flat, the great new frontier was obviously Boomers, and the older, the better. Problem: Older Boomers don’t necessarily like newfangled gadgets, so they aren’t exactly going to rush out to buy a $400-$600 electronic watch. But their kids might. I could be wrong, but what I see here is Apple’s attempt to give affluent X’ers a reason to buy Apple Watches for their elderly parents. I will know if I was right sometime in mid to late January. If so, good move, Apple. It was a smart play. Sort of.
The problem though, is that if I am right, Apple is going about this cart first, horse second. What Apple should have done for this use case is create a wearable with a bigger face and a simple interface specifically for seniors. First: The Apple watch’s screen fonts are probably too small for someone who needs reading glasses to read a restaurant menu. Second, many seniors, especially those on the older side, aren’t going to feel comfortable enough with any tech to set up an ECG using a tiny watch, then send a PDF of it to their doctor. Third, if you have ever tried to use an Apple Watch screen with an unsteady hand, you already know how frustrating such a small interface can be for seniors afflicted with common types of motor control challenges. Not to mention that a lot of men have big fingers to begin with, and a tiny screen isn’t all that great for them even on a good day. It isn’t to say that it won’t be a wonderful tool for millions of users entering their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, but will they be the rule, or will they be the exception? Only time will tell.
The short of it: Apple Watch, like Google Glass, seems a bit like a product in search of a purpose – as opposed to a product designed to solve specific problems. I suspect that if the AARP went to Apple product designers and asked them to develop a form factor for a wearable to be used primarily by seniors, the first batch of prototypes would look nothing like the Apple Watch Series 4. And so, in my mind, what I suspect is an attempt by Apple to convince X’ers to buy Apple Watches for their elderly parents this holiday season will be a success from a sales perspective, but in the real world, I fear that the beneficiaries of those gifts will not derive much utility from them. There are cheaper and more effective ways of achieving what Apple is showcasing without shelling out the price of a light-duty Chromebook. Still, if I were a marketing product manager at Apple, and a redesign wasn’t an option anytime soon, I would have probably went with this strategy as well. What else can Apple do at this point? If nothing else, it creates a beachhead for future products. That alone is worth the attempt.
As for athletes, the Apple Watch doesn’t do what sports wearables already do much better, and occasionally at a lower price, so you won’t be seeing me or most of my cycling, running, hiking, sailing, skydiving, adventure-racing, and triathlete buddies running out to buy one – at least not for sports or performance-related reasons. The fact that Apple Watch may be the best-selling smart watch in the world isn’t so much a reflection of Apple’s brilliance as it is the result of smart watches still being a product category in search of an eager market: Apple or not, short battery life, high prices, low utility, and the perceived uselessness of a watch face that looks like black glass 95% of the time all conspire to make smart watches a hard sell. Only Apple has pumped serious money and resources into trying to make smart watches happen, and only Apple fans have been properly trained for decades to buy whatever Apple tells them to. Like it or not, it’s a great combination. Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony, Huawei and Google haven’t been doing that, and traditional watchmakers testing the connected watch waters haven’t exactly been all-in with a technology that doesn’t really excite anyone just yet.
Imagine that you’re a brand manager for Casio. You know that your price points are $35 to $150. Are you really going to take a huge chance on a watch that has to be recharged every 24-36 hours, may not be fully waterproof or impact-resistant, and comes with a $299-$500 MSRP? Where are you going to sell it? At Walmart? Target? Best Buy? At the mall? And what do you get for that? Phone notifications and a watch face that looks blank most of the day? Not exactly a great sales pitch. So the low-end passes.
Now imagine that you’re a brand manager for Rolex, Tag, Omega, or Panerai. Your median price point is in the thousands. Are you really going to see value in a $600 watch that feels and weighs like a made-in-China kid’s watch, has to be recharged every day or two, and doesn’t even show your logo or a signature watch face 95% of the time? You would be asking your smartwatch technology partner how to make the watch feel expensive, how to add weight to it, how to make sure that the logo and watch face stay on 24/7 so that people can actually see it when a customer wears it on his or her wrist. But how would you price it? Nobody is going to buy a $3,000 Chinese-made smartwatch, no matter whose logo is on it when you turn it on, and you can’t be selling a $699-$999 watch, right? So the high-end passes.
And that is why Apple has the best-selling smart watch in the world: Because no one else is really all that sold on a product category that still has a lot of technical hurdles to overcome before the pricepoint becomes aligned with the watch’s value to users, and the ownership experience becomes aligned with the expectations of enduring brands.
Aside from all of the above complaints and caveats, Apple still puts out very good products. They’re slick. They’re pretty. They work well. There is nothing inherently wrong with the new iPhones, or the new Apple Watches, and presumably the new Apple [insert product category here]. Apple is a great company that makes great stuff. It’s just… Apple has become just another also-in company now, and for someone who remembers the golden age of Apple design and innovation, it is difficult not to feel a great deal of disappointment over this. Much of Apple’s success today is the result of two things: 1) decades of outstanding marketing, and 2) momentum earned by years of brilliant innovation. Sadly, those years are, at least for now, squarely in the rear view mirror, as evidenced by what we witnessed this past week. And as much as it pains me to say it, contrary to what your car’s sideview mirror may read, when it comes to Apple, objects in the mirror may actually be farther than they appear.
Maybe things will be different next year. One can hope.