Why only Apple can make an iPhone-class device

I've said numerous times over the last year or so that only Apple could have made the iPhone 5 (from which both the current iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c are derived). That's earned me my fair share of raised eyebrows and heckles, largely because I've never taken the time to explain what I mean by that. Here's the explanation: No other company on earth right now could, nor likely would if they could, make a device that packs as much technology into as relatively small a frame, at such high a quality, as Apple did with the iPhone 5. And that statement can be true whether you think positioning themselves to be able to make an iPhone 5 was brilliant, or stupid. Here's why:

  • How many other manufacturers are capable of spinning their own, custom silicone like the Apple A6 and Apple A7? Most just throw whatever Qualcomm's making into their phones. Yet the A6 and A7 let Apple tune power and performance explicitly for iOS 7, create the image signal processor (ISP) that lets the iSight camera outshoot rivals with much better optics, and provide the secure enclave for Touch ID.

  • How many other manufacturers are capable of shrinking down a camera to fit into the ludicrously thin chassis of the iPhone 5 series? Some add unsightly camera bulges, others ship crappy cameras. Yet Apple shaved off a significant amount of the z-index from the iSight camera and actually managed to improve on the quality of images it produced.

  • How many other manufacturers are capable of producing displays as advanced as the in-cell Retina? Some go OLED and even PenTile to save battery life and improve yield rates at the expense of image and color fidelity. Apple fused the touch layer with the screen to create a single component that not only kept the quality possible from LED backlit LCD with in-plane switching (IPS) but reduced glare and improved overall fidelity.

  • How many other manufacturers are capable of producing aluminium unibody chassises? Or more pointedly, of producing the machines that manufacture aluminium unibody chassises to the level of precision, at the level of volume, required to perfectly match hundreds of millions of units? Apple is using cameras to best match RF windows into frames, and diamonds to polish chamfers.

  • How many other manufacturers are capable of engineering 10 hours of battery life on a phone that small? Other manufacturers can't make the "mini" versions of their phones anywhere nearly as small as the iPhone 5 platform, never mind their flagship phones. Yet Apple, who - until next year - believes small, one-handed phones are of primary importance, who can't hide giant batteries beneath big displays, who won't switch to OLED but will stick to a single radio process, who won't include "sleep time" in their "full day battery" estimates, gets 10 hours out of their tiny package.

Those are just the most obvious example of how strongly held beliefs, combined with the willingness to invest early and do hard things, positioned Apple to be able to make the iPhone 5, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5s. Those phones are the result of a lot of very complicated moving pieces put into motion over a long period of time. Those phones are non-trivial.

It's brought Apple problems, of course. Antennagate. The chipping and scratching on the slate anodization. It took a generation to fix those and other things.

And other companies do great things as well. Nokia's build quality is amazing. But they don't make their own chips. Samsung's processors are impressive. But their build quality still tends towards the creaky. HTC's panels and speakers are fantastic. But they don't make their own operating system. They each have priorities and areas of excellence. But none of then, so far, have seen the value in doing all of the pieces Apple's done, including design from the chipset on up, manufacturing from the machinery on down, and experience from the atoms to the bits. Maybe that's changing. Maybe Google buying Motorola and Microsoft buying Nokia are signs that's changing.

Integration alone isn't the same, however. Palm was integrated. BlackBerry is integrated. Both floundered. Samsung isn't, and they're doing incredibly well, at least in market share if not in overall product quality (TouchWiz is painful).

Maybe that makes everyone else smarter than Apple, better able to see what they really need to own and what they can farm out, what they need to engineer and what they can work around, what should involve effort and what shouldn't. But as it stands today, no one, not Samsung, not Nokia, not HTC, not Motorola, not BlackBerry, not anyone else in the world could have manufactured an iPhone-class device. None of them invested in as much, early enough, to have all the elements in-house and able to execute at scale, and profitably so. That last one is the kicker. Apple's doing all of the above, and still making tons of money doing it, in an industry where almost no one else is making any.

Maybe that doesn't matter. If you think the iPhone is small or otherwise sucks, it obviously doesn't matter to you. If you like the iPhone, however, you're probably pretty happy Apple went to all the trouble to make it.

iPhone 5s

iPhone 5s
Apple's current flagship iPhone with a 4-inch in-cell display, LTE 4G, and BT 4.0 LE. New features include:

Complete review >

September, 2013

iPhone 5c, iPhone 4s

iPhone 6 (rumored)
Fall, 2014

Buyers guide
Help forum