Today’s retail launch of the Apple iPhone 8 and 8 Plus is a crucial test for Apple’s riskiest iPhone strategy.
For the first time, Apple introduced its latest iPhone upgrades while simultaneously teasing something better coming soon — what, by Apple’s own admission, is “the future.”
Apple’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are, based on my review and what I’ve seen elsewhere on the web (and even in teardowns), “S” series devices in full-number-update clothing. Except for the glass back, the handsets maintain the iPhone 6 design introduced in 2014. Apple swapped out the A10 Fusion chip for the incredibly powerful A11 Bionic CPU, but left the screen and cameras largely unchanged.
I really like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but the changes come directly from Apple’s “S” playbook.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this, and I really like the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but the changes come directly from Apple’s “S” playbook: Upgrades instead of an overhaul, so the number stays the same to signal the subtler nature of the changes.
Instead of delivering the iPhone 7S (and 7S Plus), though, Apple gave them the full-number update treatment and simultaneously introduced the iPhone X (which, to remind, is pronounced “ten”). With its aggressive redesign and cutting-edge technology like the TrueDepth camera module, edge-to-edge OLED display and retirement of the home button, the iPhone X earns the name. It’s the true apex iPhone and easily the most coveted product in Apple’s iPhone lineup.
On Friday, the day Apple put the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus on sale in retail stores (after a few days of online store pre-sales) I started reading reports of sparse crowds at Apple Stores. In London, there were more Apple employees in the store than queued up iPhone 8 buyers, and it appears to be a very similar picture in the U.S. To be fair, iPhone retail launch events have been in decline since the iPhone 6 launch.
At the same time, I launched a little online poll:
Granted the results aren’t exactly scientific, but the sentiment is clear: More than half the people responding are sitting on their hands and waiting until the sexier iPhone X ships in November, even after numerous reports said supplies could be so low that some people won’t get the smartphone until next year.
What if, I wondered, Apple made a terrible mistake?
This strategy of offering the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus first, while the real update, one that some believe is prohibitively expensive, looms just a few weeks later, is an unusual choice. In fact, it could squeeze Apple from both sides. iPhone consumers usually want the shiniest, new thing, but they don’t want to pay an arm and a leg (The argument could be made they they’ve been doing so for ages, but the loss of carrier subsidies and the psychographic impact of a $1,000 price should not be underestimated).
Could iPhone consumers feel caught in the middle between the phone they really want, but can’t afford, and the more reasonably priced device that doesn’t excite them because it’s not Apple’s ultimate iPhone?
Looked at this way, this bold iPhone strategy could be Apple CEO Tim Cook’s first big misstep… or another stroke of brilliance.
One iPhone for all
Ten years ago, we had one iPhone to choose from. Even as Android competitors started introducing a wider array of handsets and the early, large-screen devices that, at the time, few (certainly not Steve Jobs) believed would be successful, Apple maintained its one (small-screen) handset strategy
That strategy persisted until 2013, when Tim Cook unveiled the iPhone 5C alongside the iPhone 5S. Suddenly, Apple’s new phone lineup doubled in size. It set the stage for the company’s first big-screen iPhone, the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, which launched in 2014 next to the 4.7-inch iPhone 6.
Personally, I loved this shift. It acknowledged changing smartphone tastes and started to give people design and price options.
Today, we have a lineup of eight iPhones that range in price from the $349, 4-inch, iPhone SE to the $999, 5.8-inch, iPhone X. There’s a lot of choice in there and I have no doubt that consumers welcome this. However, the core iPhone user, the person who bought the first iPhone as a status symbol and has upgraded like clockwork to every new device each year is possibly facing a dilemma.
This bold iPhone strategy could be Apple CEO Tim Cook’s first big misstep…or another stroke of brilliance.
If they bought the iPhone 7 last year, are they planning on buying the iPhone 8? Probably not. It certainly wasn’t my recommendation. So that means they wait for the iPhone X.
As Mashable Senior Tech Analyst Raymond Wong pointed out to me: This is potentially a “win-win” for Apple. Consumers who don’t buy the cheaper iPhone 8 or 8 Plus, will just wait for the expensive iPhone X.
He may be right, but what if anemic iPhone X supplies in 2017 mean that most people are waiting or buying their iPhone X in 2018?
“So what?” you might respond. Apple still makes the money, right?
Yes, but what does the Apple’s first quarter look like if demand for the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus is low (we have yet to hear about pre-sale numbers, but there have been zero reports of delivery delays on pre-sales, a possible sign of soft demand) and tens of millions of customers wait for iPhone X in 2018?
Apple’s first quarter, the one that includes holiday sales, has looked amazing for almost a decade precisely because of the iPhone, which sells anywhere from 40 to 75 million units in the first three months after launch. Those sales are driven by the Apple’s hottest new device and, in this situation, that isn’t the iPhone 8.
Things could still work out in Apple’s favor, especially if they just collect all the pre-orders for the iPhone X, put those sales on the 2017 Q1 books and then let people wait for delivery until next year when they can make enough of the 5.8-inch handsets.
Alternatively, Apple could benefit from the unusually high number of upgraders ready to buy new phones. Samsung told me earlier this year that some 50 million consumers were at the end of the 18-month smartphone ownership cycle. They hope to sweep a lot of them up in the Galaxy S8/S8+ and Note 8 launches. But they’re up for grabs for Apple, too, which could sell them any one of eight different iPhones.
I’m confident Apple will sell millions of new iPhones, but if most them end up being the iPhone X, the question of when those sales happen starts to look really murky. Will they still be meaningful if many happen after the Samsung Galaxy S9 is a reality? Or iPhone 11/iPhone X2 rumors start to mount?
How the world — and Apple’s customers — respond to a protracted iPhone X launch is anyone’s guess.
Watch: Secrets of the Steve Jobs Theater
The perennial refrain of Android fans is that Apple is just adding stuff to iOS that they’ve had for years already in their mobile ecosystem. And it’s certainly true that Cupertino makes a point of waiting until it believes a technology is properly baked and the time is juuuuust right — or at least commercially judicious — to introduce a new product or capability, one which has likely already been in widespread use across the mobile platform aisle.
Hence the company is often charged with being an innovation laggard. While its senior execs are always fielding questions about why such and such a product or feature isn’t in Apple’s line-up yet.
The company’s strategy for, you could say, mismanaging expectation has seen it frequently swing from publicly rubbishing a device type or technology — to warmly embracing it a few years later. (Or, well, not, in the case of Flash.)
Steve Jobs was master of this dark marketing art. You don’t usually see his more mild-mannered replacement, Tim Cook, deploying the kind of extended public trashtalking that Jobs indulged, raging out at this or that rival tech as ludicrous, impossible to use and horribly designed. Before performing a complete U-turn down the line.
Cook mostly limits himself to getting a bit fired up about Android security and fragmentation during keynotes. But the current Apple CEO has still presided over some major swerves in its position on tech developments — from finally inflating the screen size of the iPhone, in 2014, to adding and (now) extending support for NFC, as well as introducing wireless charging in its newest iPhone 8/8 Plus and iPhone X models.
He was also at the helm when Apple outed a stylus for its iPad Pro line — braving the inexorable flak given Jobs’ very public loathing for such sticks (among many jabs at styli, Jobs left us this choice quote: “If you need a stylus you’ve already failed”).
The lesson here is that Apple has always said — and will always say — whatever it needs to in public as it bides its time, continues its analysis and waits until its target mainstream market will appreciate the utility of what it’s developing. As Jobs also used to say, the things Apple chooses not to do are as important to what it does include in the products.
And of course it does not always get this balancing act right. It was, after all, rather slow to increase smartphone screen size and move into the phablet space. Yet at the same time lots of iPhone users clearly liked the four-inch handset form factor, hence Apple subsequently re-introducing it, with the iPhone SE.
A more major misjudgment came in 2013 when it tried to offer a plastic-backed iPhone, aka the iPhone 5c. The market responded with a resounding: no thanks! — and the model was quietly discontinued. (Perhaps because offering a cheaper build material went against Apple’s grain of expanding the pool of technological innovations it offers users.)
But any statements the company makes that appear intended to rubbish rival innovations should be read as a placeholder signal which states: yes Apple is interested, yes Apple is looking, yes Apple is probably testing and prototyping; but no Apple, is not yet ready to take the plunge.
Apple did not make the first personal computer, nor the first tablet computer, nor the first smartphone. Measuring it against what comes first is — to paraphrase Jobs — a boneheaded way of looking at the company. Rather its energy is spun up and spent on doing the hard assessment work of figuring out how to make key technology innovations accessible and usable across the broadest audience. From toddlers to senior citizens.
And the mass consumer adoption of these technologies is the real innovative heart of Apple.
So when this refining modus operandi means the company has to publicly change course and contradict something it’s said before, its execs don’t even feel the need to break a sweat. Because this is the reality of the task they’ve set themselves — to guide consumers one more rung up the tech ladder.
That’s the kind of engineering business Apple is in.
2013, Tim Cook: “Some people use OLED displays, but the colour saturation is awful. If you ever buy anything online and really want to know what he color is, as many people do, you should really think twice before you depend on the color from an OLED display.”
2017, Phil Schiller: “This is the first OLED display great enough to be in an iPhone.”
2012, Phil Schiller: “Having to create another device you have to plug into the wall is actually, for most situations, more complicated.”
2017, Phil Schiller: “Words can’t describe just how much nicer it is to just put it down and pick it up whenever you want to charge without every having to plug in a cable again.”
2013, Craig Federighi, touting Apple AirDrop as a better alternative to NFC: “No need to wander around the room, bumping your phone… [mimes bumping phones]”
September 2014, Eddie Cue: “We’ve got a groundbreaking NFC antenna built across the top… Apple Pay is easy and secure and it’s private.”
September 2014, Tim Cook, on Apple Pay: “It is so cool!”
2017: Apple (quietly) expands NFC support in iOS 11 beyond Apple Pay — to enable it to read NFC tags in the real world
2013, Tim Cook: “The iPhone 5 offers… a new four-inch retina display, which is the most advanced display in the industry. It also provides a larger screen size without sacrificing the one-handed ease of use that our customers love.”
2014, Tim Cook, introducing iPhone 6 and 6 Plus: “Today we are launching the biggest advancement in the history of iPhone.”
2014, Phil Schiller: “Yes, they’re bigger. They’re a lot bigger… Your photos look gorgeous and there’s more to see on each of them.
“And when you turn them in landscape we show more as well. And we took special advantage of the iPhone 6 Plus because of all those pixels to do some new things with our apps. So, for example, the messages app now has a new horizontal two-up display… We do everything to take advantage of these huge displays to make them more capable.”
Third party keyboard apps
2013, Tim Cook, asked about opening up iOS keyboard for third party apps: “I think you’ll see us open up more in future, but not to the degree that we’ll put the customer at risk of having a bad experience.”
2014, Craig Federighi, introducing the ability to install system-wide third party keyboards: “So now if you have a special keyboard you want to use you can install those on iOS, and by default those of course run inside of the most restricted sandbox with no network access, because we want to make sure to protect your privacy. But if that keyboard requires or you want to grant it ability it can ask for access to the network to provide extended functionality. We put those controls in your hands.”
May 2017, Phil Schiller on being asked about the Amazon Echo and Google Home: “My mother used to have a saying that if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all.
“There’s many moments where a voice assistant is really beneficial, but that doesn’t mean you’d never want a screen. So the idea of not having a screen, I don’t think suits many situations.”
June 2017, Phil Schiller: “This is really exciting. The chance to reinvent the way we enjoy music in the home. I can’t think of anything that matters more to so many of us.”
2007, Steve jobs: “Who wants a stylus? You have to get em and put em away and you lose em. Yeuck! Nobody wants a stylus.”
2015, Phil Schiller: “It’s called Apple Pencil… It’s one of the most advanced technologies we’ve ever created, in a simple, beautiful form.”
2010, Steve Jobs, on 7-inch tablets needing to include “sandpaper so that your user could sand down their fingers to one-quarter of their present size”.
“There are clear limits on how you can physically place elements on a touchscreen before users can not reliably tap, flick or pinch them. This is why we think that the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.”
2012, Phil Schiller: “What can you do with an iPad mini that you can’t already do with the amazing Fourth Generation iPad? Well this — you can hold it in one hand.”
“This isn’t just a shrunken down iPad; it’s an entirely new design… There is nothing as amazing as this.”
But could that future be rife with privacy violations and potential for abuse? It’s a question that Sen. Al Franken intends to get to the bottom of, and on Wednesday, he fired off a letter to the tech giant to get the investigative ball rolling.
At issue is Face ID, a replacement for Touch ID that scans a smartphone owner’s face in order to unlock the device or authenticate Apple Pay. Experts have expressed concerns that the technology could be a step backward for device security, as well as a potential move toward a privately owned database of facial biometric data.
In the letter, addressed to Apple CEO Tim Cook, Franken gets right to the heart of the matter. While acknowledging the security steps the company says it has taken to secure locally stored data, he asks what we’re all thinking: What about the future?
“Apple has stated that all faceprint data will be stored locally on an individual’s device as opposed to being sent to the cloud,” writes Franken. “Is it currently possible — either remotely or through physical access to the device — for either Apple or a third party to extract and obtain usable faceprint data from the iPhone X?”
But that’s not all. The Democratic senator from Minnesota addresses the worry that Face ID might discriminate against people of color.
“[It] has previously been reported that many facial recognition systems have a higher rate of error when tested for accuracy in identifying people of color, which may be explained by variety of factors, including a lack of diversity in the faces that were used to train a system,” he continues. “What steps did Apple take to ensure its system was trained on a diverse set of faces, in terms of race, gender, and age,” he later asks.
And Franken doesn’t stop there. “Apple has stated that it used more than one billion images in developing the Face ID algorithm. Where did these one billion face images come from?”
Which, yeah — that’s a pretty good question.
Franken also wants to know if the company can “assure its users that it will never share faceprint data, along with the tools or other information necessary to extract the data, with any commercial third party.”
And that pesky bit about Face ID actually securing your device against low-tech hacks? “Please describe again all the steps that Apple has taken to ensure that Face ID can distinguish an individual’s face from a photograph or mask, for example,” requests the senator.
He’s asked that Apple respond by Oct. 13. Importantly, pre-sales for the iPhone X are slated to begin Oct. 27.
Hopefully the company takes Franken’s request seriously. A detailed examination of just what Face ID means for the average consumer’s privacy — not just convenience when unlocking the phone — was overdue the minute the feature was unveiled. Franken’s letter gives Apple the opportunity to remedy that lapse.
In the meantime, maybe consider sticking with an alphanumeric password.
At the unveiling of Apple’s new flagship smartphone yesterday, the iPhone X, CEO Tim Cook said it was something the company’s staff had been working on for a decade.
The new premium handset with its edge-to-edge display (minus one unfortunate top notch) does away with the physical home button entirely and makes greater use of gestures for controlling the UI.
The new interface for multitasking looks fluid and intuitive. But it also — if you’ve been smartphone watching for long enough — engenders a distinct feeling of déjà vu…
Specifically it looks rather like webOS running on the Palm Pre — a handset that was announced in 2009, after Jon Rubinstein, former SVP of Apple’s iPod division, had been lured out of retirement in Mexico by Palm: A mobile device company with a (very) long history, and enough self-perspective to realize they needed an experienced product designer to help them surf the next wave of mobility: touchscreen computing.
Rubinstein, who had left Apple in spring 2006, clearly possessed the sought for design chops. Palm execs flew down to Mexico to woo and win their man.
By the start of 2009 Rubinstein was on stage at CES to announce the Palm Pre: A high-gloss, pebble-shaped slider smartphone which deployed multiple gestures in the UI making the most of a touch-sensitive area that extended below the display and onto the bezel itself.
It wasn’t just the scroll-flicks and pinch-to-zooms already on the iPhone and Android devices of the time that Palm had brought over to its next-gen smartphone hardware. It had something else up its sleeve: Its webOS UI incorporated a deck-of-cards activity interface to be the driver for low friction mobile multitasking.
Palm showed how users could easily swipe between and tap on the cards to switch apps. How the order of cards could be rearranged with a finger press and drag. And how individual cards could be flicked off the top of the screen when the user was done with a particular app or task. Cards showed fully active apps. It was simple and elegant.
“Now how’s that for some real newness,” said Matías Duarte, Palm’s senior director of human interface and user experience, with a pretty sizable smirk on his face as he wrapped up that part of the Pre’s CES demo.
(Duarte now works on Google’s card-like Material Design design language, which extends the card motif the company first used in Android, for Google Now, in 2012; and he went straight from Palm to being a VP of design at Android when the feature was being developed.)
In an earnings call later the same month in 2009, Cook was pressed by analysts about how quickly the iPhone’s competitors appeared to be elbowing into the market — and asked how Apple would be able to sustain its leadership.
“We don’t mind competition, but if others rip off our intellectual property, we will go after them,” he responded in a comment that was picked up on and interpreted at the time as a pretty stark warning shot across Palm’s bows.
When pressed again specifically on the Palm Pre, and how the device seemed to “directly emulate the iPhone’s innovative interface”, Cook doubled down on his implied accusation of IP theft: “We don’t want to refer to any specific companies, so that was a general statement. We like competition because it makes us better, but we will not stand for companies infringing on our IP.”
Of course this is all water under the bridge now, as Palm’s dreams of successfully surfing the smartphone wave ended in abrupt disaster — burdened by ongoing legacy software challenges, wrong-footed by carriers’ marketing decisions and ultimately saddled with an unloving acquirer in HP — and the Palm Pre had a cruelly short lifespan for such a forward-thinking device.
I remember how fresh the interface felt in 2009. How hugely advanced vs legacy smartphone players like BlackBerry and Nokia — which, although they were still minting huge revenues back then, were also clearly failing to come to terms rapidly enough with the paradigm shift of touchscreen mobility.
Whether the Palm Pre was truly ahead of its time, or whether elements of the interface had been plucked out of a carefully planned Cupertino 10-year roadmap will be a story for Valley historians to unpick.
But in the iPhone X it’s clear you’re looking at a little ghost of the Pre.