On Apple, the iPhone X, hype bubbles, and adjusting our expectations

1. Hype bubbles, rumors, and the revolution that never came.

For months now, we were promised a revolution, a game-changer, an inflection point in the smartphone industry. Industry influencers and insiders alike spoke about the mysterious new iPhone in eager, reverent whispers. It was going to be AR-first device with see-through glass panels and revolutionary interfaces and capabilities. It was going to revolutionize the mobile industry. Nothing would ever be the same again.

I wanted to believe in the rumors, but they seemed a little far-fetched. When you work in the tech space like I do, you know where patents come from. You know who is working on what, and how far along they are. You’re able to discern real-world technologies from science-fiction. The short of it: some technologies are ready for the market, and others are still years away. It’s important to know the difference between both before you start writing with any kind of authority about the tech world. So when someone whose job it is to shape a media narrative that will excite investors tells you that the company they work for has just magically leaped five to ten years ahead of everyone in the industry (no pun intended), you had better get some kind of solid confirmation before you start mistaking stealth PR for reality.

Which brings us to this week’s Apple event. I am not going to blame Apple for the worst of the hype this time around. Even if Apple planted some of those seeds, most of the blame goes to the people spent months inflating the hype cycle for their own benefit. Generally speaking, attention, ego, and clicks are never good reasons to start, amplify, or spread unsubstantiated rumors. This extends beyond just lazy journalism. The problem also touches on the nebulous ethics of some industry “influencers,” many of whom have for some time now been far more concerned with boosting their own profiles than in contributing accurate information about important topics, let alone substantive analysis.

So no, I won’t slam Apple for falling short of expectations. Not today. And in a way, I don’t feel let down by Apple at all. The big reveal of the iPhone 8 and iPhone X are exactly what I expected them to be: Incrementally better than the iPhone 7. Prettier, smoother, faster, but with fairly linear upgrades we all saw coming a mile away. It’s been Apple’s MO for the past few years now, so no one should be surprised. I’m not.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what was unveiled during the 9/12 Apple event. My intention here isn’t to dive into specs and features. That comes later. Today, I just want to share a few first impressions. We’ll spend more time on specs and features soon, when we have other new smartphones to compare the 8 and X to.

2. What Apple did right:

  • The new Apple Watch Series 3 cellular connectivity: In retrospect this was one of the event’s biggest winners. Not having to carry a phone around was always the promise of a true smart watch, and Apple finally delivered.
  • Letting the market know that the Apple Watch is now #1 in watch revenue was a good play: Seeing Apple and Rolex being mentioned side by side was clever. Not only did it cast arguably slow Apple Watch sales in a far more positive light than people are used to, it also positioned Apple against a luxury watch brand as opposed to, say, Timex or Casio.
  • Apple TV 4K’s price point: $179 (32GB) and $199 (64GB) don’t break the bank. Good move.
  • Apple TV + HomeKit: Not exactly rocket science, but a good move nonetheless.
  • The iPhone 8’s pricing: After all the rumors about the next iPhone’s $1,200 price tag, announcing a “from $699” price point was clever. You could almost hear the giant sigh of relief from everyone following the event around the world.
  • Wireless charging: Wireless charging is nothing new, so it was time for Apple to get into that game. Frictionless charging is a natural extension of the brand anyway. Bonus: Going with the Qi standard instead of some proprietary Apple-only system was a pleasant surprise, even if it was a by default.
  • The A11 CPU is a lot faster and more powerful than the A10.
  • The camera, Part 1: A wide-angle lens and a zoom? Separately? It’s about time.
  • The camera, Part 2: High aperture lenses? It’s about time.
  • The camera, Part 3: Machine learning and studio quality image editing? It’s about time.
  • Facial recognition: I probably need to devote a separate article to discuss Face ID, and edge security features in general, but for now, let’s just put this feature mostly in the positive column. (There are pros and cons we need to go over separately.)
  • AR integration: Personally, I’m more interested in functional AR applications than gaming, but the iPhone 8 and X open the door to both, so I am happy about it. (What was introduced was nowhere near the degree of AR integration we have been hearing about for months, but it is, nevertheless, a positive.)
  • Apple didn’t talk about the new phones’ flaws and shortcomings, but that is to be expected. Few companies ever tell you what its new products’ shortcomings are on the first day. I won’t fault Apple for that.
  • This slide:

What I see here isn’t so much a slide for consumers, but rather, a slide aimed at reassuring investors: A price-point for everyone = An iPhone for every budget = a comprehensive iPhone retail/sales strategy, just in time for the Christmas season. (The Holiday season¬†was mentioned during the presentation, in case you missed it.) With iPhone sales growth not looking great recently, it was important for Apple to strike that one note as clearly and effectively as it could, and I think it did. Ultimately, the pudding’s in the sales, but at least there appears to be a cohesive strategy, and that’s a good start.

 

3. What Apple didn’t get right:

  • Disappointing battery life: The Apple Watch’s battery life is still a problem, in my opinion. The next Holy Grail of smart watch design has to get more than 24 hours of autonomy. A week would be nice, but for now, let’s hope Apple engineers manage to get the battery life beyond 18 hours. Yes, this may mean a bigger Apple Watch. No, that shouldn’t be a problem. Big watches will find eager buyers in consumers who already like a little heft on their wrist. Not everyone is keen on the Cartier Tank’s minimalist proportions.
  • Playing catch-up isn’t innovation: The Series 3’s HRM (heart rate monitor) and fitness tracking capabilities were announced as if they were novel, but Garmin and Polar already deliver that kind of functionality, and have for some time. Come on, Apple. Show me something I haven’t seen before.
  • Apple TV: Why again?
  • Incrementalism is starting to feel familiar: The iPhone 8’s improvements are incremental. Better CPU, better screen, better cameras, better speakers, better software. In that sense, the iPhone 8 is no more revolutionary than the iPhone 7 or than the iPhone 6. This wouldn’t be a problem if we hadn’t been promised a radically new product, but we were.
  • Trying too hard: Constantly inserting “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and “groundbreaking” into presentations wouldn’t be necessary if the product demo spoke for itself. The abundance of flowery adjectives during the demos felt forced rather than natural. It was too much. Companies don’t feel the need to overcompensate with lush self-congratulatory marketing copy and manipulative sales techniques when they are confident in their own product.
  • Product strategy is going a little sideways: Apple is introducing an iPhone 8 and an iPhone X together? Why? What happened to the iPhone 9? “X” looks cooler? Okay then. How is the iPhone 8 not merely an incremental bridge to the iPhone X? Oh, never mind. The iPhone 8 could have been scrapped but it fits into the price gap between the $599 and $999 brackets. (Remember when Apple knew how to avoid product creep?) 2017 Apple is starting to feel like its being run by 2005 Microsoft.
  • The “all screen” that really isn’t: Sorry, Apple, but a phone isn’t “all screen” when one side isn’t a screen, the actual screen doesn’t extend completely to the edges, and the top of said screen looks like this:

  • Speaking of that top section of the screen side (the one that houses the camera apparatus), get ready to hear a lot of design purists scream holy murder about it. I am no design specialist, but even I can see where Apple failed to find an elegant solution to that problem.
  • 2x the glass = 2x the potential breakage: Take that as you will, but in the real world of users, this could become a problem.
  • Animated emojis: Look… emojis are fun and all, and being able to animate them is kind of cool, I guess, but for a price tag starting at $999, maybe something more useful and innovative is in order.
  • Speaking of that $1K base price… The laptop I am writing this article on cost half that, and I can do a lot more stuff with it.
  • Wireless Charging (again): The AirPower mat is a good idea, but nothing groundbreaking. Wireless charging has been around for some time now. Not exactly revolutionary.
  • Don’t think me petty or overly PC, but what kind of message does Apple send by putting so many sartorially-challenged middle-aged white dudes on stage?
    • First question: Are there no women in charge of big things at Apple? If so, great! Let’s have them come out on stage. If not, perhaps that helps explain why Apple seems stuck on improving old ideas instead of investing in entirely new ones. If diversity fuels innovation and creativity, an absence of it does what? (Nb: Using women as props, especially used in conjunction with paddle boards, doesn’t exactly count.)
    • Second question: Apple is supposed to be cool, right? I know a bunch of super competent and creative middle-aged white dudes who can rock a pair of jeans and a shirt, and look plenty cool doing a product demo. No tie? No jacket? Shirt tucked or untucked? No problem. But studying the guys delivering the presentations, I didn’t notice a lot of confident coolness there. It might seem trivial, but it isn’t. Companies and cultures are run by people, not org chart cutouts. That would absolutely not be an issue if we were talking about Microsoft, IBM, Samsung, Alphabet, or even Facebook, but this is Apple.¬†“Think different” isn’t just a slogan. Real question: Can a culture of innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and coolness really thrive when the people in charge of its big projects aren’t innovative, creative, and cool risk-takers? It doesn’t mean that they’re poor leaders or lousy managers or devoid of ideas. Obviously, they are very good at what they do. And I am not suggesting that everyone at Apple should look like an agency creative or a veteran surfer in order to be effective, but… culture is culture, and symptoms are symptoms. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep an eye on just how corporate and “square” decision-makers are becoming at Apple. Style is a reflection of substance. If you disagree, that’s fine, but let me make a final observation before you make up your mind: We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Apple were still the same company it was just six years ago.
  • Apple’s “Where’s the beef?” problem: Most of what I saw today was technology I have already seen elsewhere, and that won’t be unique to the iPhone X. Facial recognition? Check. In-device machine learning? Check. Augmented Reality? Check. Water-resistance? Check. Wireless charging? Check. Where were the revolutionary, groundbreaking features we spent months hearing about? With the exception of the A11 CPU, which is definitely a big step forward for Apple, how were the iPhones 8 and X not merely incremental improvements from the 7 series? Were we not promised groundbreaking, revolutionary, industry-redefining technologies and designs? What happened?
  • The death of “one more thing”: There was a time when “one more thing” was a wow moment, a surprise dessert, not a “meet us in the lobby for refreshments and hands-on demos” type announcement. It was a little sad to see so little effort put into getting that part right.

Again, this isn’t meant to be an in-depth analysis of the 9/12/2017 Apple event, or a deep dive into product specs. It’s just a first reaction to what was supposed to be one of the most important tech releases of 2017. Quick recap: What did we get? Just another Apple event. Nothing awful, but nothing groundbreaking either.

4. So where does that leave us?

Here’s the deal: Apple makes a great smartphone. Apple makes a great smart watch. Apple is very good at marketing. Apple’s ability to fit a lot of great technology into sleek, beautiful looking products is second to none. But for at least the third year in a row now, I find myself nonplussed by what Apple is putting out and by the way Apple does it. I am not disappointed. Not really. Not anymore. I suspected that 2017 wouldn’t be that different from 2016, and 2015 before it. This par for the course for Apple now: YoY incremental improvements on existing products. For better or for worse, it is what it is.

And honestly, it isn’t the end of the world, but I guess part of me hoped that there would be more to it this time, that Apple really would show signs of getting back on the path to being the Apple that used to blow us away with its bold vision and unbridled confidence. A company that knew how to innovate, take real risks, and lead the way. A company that made us all push our creative limits a little further. That’s what was promised over the last few months, and now that promise has kind of fizzled out. It’s unfortunate. Perhaps it’s time to adjust our expectations and accept that the magic might be gone, at least for a little while.

I hope it finds its way back.

Cheers,

Olivier