The 'iPhone 5S' problem
Apple may or may not release a product called the "iPhone 5s" this year. The presumption, however, fueled by Apple having previously released the 2009 iPhone 3GS-as-in-speed, and the 2011 iPhone 4S-as-in-Siri, is that 2013 will see an iPhone 5s-as-in-something update. Whether it ultimately proves real or not, the perception of a yearly update cycle and its tick-tock nature, is becoming problematic.
Between 2007 and 2010, Apple released new iPhones in late June or early July, one after the other, like clockwork. In 2011 and 2012, Apple released new iPhones in October and September respectively. While that pushed the date from summer to fall, it still kept the iPhone release window within a roughly a 3 month period. It made it predictable.
Some people like predictability, they like McDonald's, they like to read the spoilers. However, even consumers that don't read sites like iMore every day, and don't track every rumor on the web, began to realize when new iPhones would be released. That led to a slowdown in sales for existing iPhone models just prior to the presumed next release. Apple taught people when to buy, and by extension, when not to buy.
Apple also taught competitors how to counter-program the iPhone. It's probably not a coincidence that HTC announced their next-generation Android phone, the HTC one, back in February, or that Samsung is holding their Galaxy S4 event this March. While I assume BlackBerry might have preferred their relaunch to have been sooner rather than later, they're also introducing the BlackBerry Z10 in the U.S. this spring, far from the long, fall shadow of the iPhone.
Rather than competing for attention with Apple, who continues to dominate the media cycles and best-seller lists during their launch quarter, competitors are waiting until halfway in, when the iPhone is no longer fresh, and yet still not due for a refresh.
Thanks to Apple's tick-tock product cycle, where a new design is introduced one year, and that design is iteratively updated with new internals the next year, both of those problems -- consumer presumption and competitive counter-programming -- become amplified.
When the impression is that Apple will "only" release an S-class phone in any given year, consumers might be more interested in seeing what else is out there. They might be interested in seeing something different.
While the iPhone 5 was almost entirely new from a manufacturing standpoint, because it had the same general, flat, rounded rectangle design as its predecessor, it was criticized by some consumers, and more than its fair share of tech pundits, for being boring. New unibody construction, a camera that was a feat of optical engineering, a taller, 4-inch display, and LTE -- boring. If marketing the iPhone 5 as re-revolutionary was tough, marketing an almost identical-looking iPhone 5s to the same crowd would inevitably be tougher.
Keeping the same design for two years allows Apple tremendous economies of scale, and instead of funding an entirely new phone every year, they can spend their resources on making the same phone better for the same price. That's theoretically good for everyone.
However, holding to the same design also limits what Apple can do to make the iterative iPhone "better". Making the screen bigger again would require a new casing. Adding extra radios like NFC or wireless charging could require changes to the entire package. Fingerprint scanners could complicate the current mechanisms or require other changes. Anything more aggressive than a better camera, more advanced processor, and more encompassing LTE chipset could simply be beyond the constraints of an S-style update.
In the past, to mitigate against hardware similarity, Apple has turned to software differentiation. Even if it felt arbitrary, the iPhone 3GS had video recording and the iPhone 4S had Siri. An iPhone 5s could also have some other, exclusive flagship software feature.
Competitors, however, are free to take their biggest shots at Apple during the S-years, throwing even more against the wall in an effort to see what sticks and what clicks. Whether it's digitizer-based styluses and incredibly large, ridiculously dense displays, and software that listens for you and watches your every move, anything perceived and sold as different has a better chance of standing out against anything perceived as the same, no matter how it's sold.
2013 could be especially brutal in that regard. In previous years Apple enjoyed tremendous market and media support. Even in the face of major PR stumbles like the iPhone 4 antenna, overall Apple received incredibly positive coverage. iOS 6 maps wasn't recovered from as easily or fully, and now Apple is doomed rhetoric fills Wall Street and its journals of record. In this current climate whatever iPhone is fielded this year, no matter how good it might be, Apple may have to work harder than ever before to get even a percentage of the positive coverage they enjoyed in the past.
That shift in reality distortion is benefiting competitors. Google is getting a lot of buzz for Project Glass and the Pixel, and Samsung is enjoying unprecedented mindshare for a mobile company without a fruit in its logo. They're also far, far, exceeding Apple and everyone else in the market when it comes to ad-spend. And that's working for them. They're shaping perception.
A few years ago Apple convinced the world that technology alone wasn't enough. That it was experience, not specs, that mattered. Now specs and feature lists are being hurled at Apple, and they're being accused of losing their sense of innovation, and failing to push the envelop.
The original iPhone didn't have 3G or GPS. The iPhone 3GS didn't have the larger, higher resolution screens of then cutting-edge Android phones. The iPhone 4S lacked LTE. The iPhone 5 skipped NFC. That used to cause some complaints among power users. Now even the idea that an un-announced iPhone 5s might not have a 1080p, 400+ ppi display and biometrics is pointed at by an increasingly mainstream audience as proof positive Apple has lost their way, and that other manufacturers are now leading that way.
In tick years Apple has leapt ahead with technology like Retina display. But in tock years like this one? Markets are fickle and sentiment can gain momentum. And the fear facing some iPhone users is that, in the face of all this, an "iPhone 5s" simply won't be enough.
Apple's a smart company, though. They understand the problems that come from predictability and the reality-distorting power of perception. Last year, when explaining why the iPad 3 was called the new iPad, Apple's senior vice-president of global marketing, Phil Schiller, said it was because Apple "didn't want to be predictable". Only 7 months later Apple CEO Tim Cook said they were putting the "pedal to the metal" and announced the iPad 4. They said it, and then they did it. If Apple can release two iPads (three if you count the iPad mini) in one year, what else could they do?
Rumors abound of less expensive iPhones, and of large screen iPhones. Apple has already bifurcated their tablet lineup into the 9.7-inch iPad and the 7.9-inch iPad mini. We've heard rumors that the next full-size iPad could arrive as early as this spring. If Apple chooses to, they could conceivably release one iPad now and one in fall, to better spread out the schedule. We've also heard the iPhone 5s could arrive as soon as August. Apple could also do the same thing with the iPhone, have two sizes, 4-inch and 5-inch, and eventually have spring/summer and fall releases for those as well.
And then there's that watch thing, which could directly or indirectly increase the perception of overall platform value.
Some of these rumors, like all rumors, are no doubt misinterpretations or completely baseless, and believing all of them, especially for this year, would be a mistake. But to dismiss all of them all, for all time, just because they don't fit a previous pattern, or because they sound like something Apple would never do, could be just as big a mistake.
The "iPhone 5s" problem is the idea that Apple has become predictable coupled with the perception that the next big thing might just come from somewhere else. There are signs Apple is already moving to break those patterns and challenge those expectations. That's just one way to solve that problem.
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.
FYI - I switched to the Nexus 4. My girlfriend has had Apple since the iPhone 3G (currently owns the iPhone 4 and will probably switch to android. There have been situations where what she wants we can't do on the iPhone, but we can on mine....
I'm a web developer and... what? Both Safari and Chrome use the WebKit layout engine. Sites that I have designed and developed look and function almost identical between those two browsers on mobile. Honestly if i were to nit-pick, I would say that the iPhone's skinnier screen causes more headaches for me when developing responsive designs.
2) I did not like the keyboard and Apple does not offer alternatives, nor do they allow people to.
3) I was missing flash from my web browsing experience. Jobs stated that Flash was dead but he was wrong. It's dying sure, but it's still around and I enjoy having the option of using it.
4) iTunes. Nothing else needs to be said about this one.
5) 3.5" screen was not perfect for me despite Apple repeatedly telling me that it was perfect for me.
6) I was using a wifi analyzer app and Apple banned it form the market so when I tried to install it again when I bought a new iPhone, it was gone. That made me realize that Apple had too much influence over what I could and could not do on my phone.
7) I came from the Palm world where I was used to being able to customize my main screen for how I used my phone. Apple does not allow users to do this and I found it very annoying and inefficient.
8) Inability to attach more than 1 file type in an email. Want to share an image, mp3 and doc file in iOS? That is 3 separate emails and that made no sense to me why they did it. Security reasons I'm sure but it made things woefully inefficient for me. The Apple ecosystem has some good things going for it but I saw that Android was closing the gap and even surpassing Apple in certain areas so I jumped ship and have ever looked back. All the gripes I listed were solved by going to Android and while things were a bit buggy a 2-3 years ago, it's been over a year since I've experienced any issues at all with the OS. As for apps, I don't think that is such a differentiator anymore. In fact one of the best apps that got me to try Android in the first place was an App called Tasker which to this day cannot be replicated on iOS because of Apple's policy of controlling everything. Also, if you do make it over to the Android platform, be sure to also check out Cyberus security app - it's pretty sweet.
2. Okay, you don't like Apple's keyboard, but you've not claimed why. I've seen Android keyboards that are missing key characters like the @ symbol, etc. Is that really better?
3. Flash? Really?? Sorry, but even Adobe would disagree with you here since they've killed flash for mobile.
4. iTunes. Sorry, but you need to explain your issue here. While you're at it, demonstrate a superior alternative (or at least try to).
5. Okay, 3.5" and 4" screens are fewer in choice than what's available with Android. That said, this is a subjective choice and not a matter of fact as to which option is better. From my perspective, people look retarded holding a phablet to their ear. Enjoy.
6. Okay, fair point about Apple limiting what apps we can use. Of course, that's easily offset by the malware rampant on the Android platform which is directly related to the lack of control of the app platform. Choose your poison.
7. Customization... fair point. Again, that's offset by ease of use and consistency across devices on the platform. This is very subjective in nature and not a clear victory either way.
8. Wrong. I just forwarded a word document and attached both a picture and a video as a test. Also, I wouldn't brag about the latest security app. The brag should be about not needing one in the first place.
But it could mean Screen aka big screen
Just my humble opinion.
Here is a crazy thought, Apple releases a blah phone, their stock tumbles and Apple buys up all their stock, and then introduces the iCar, which changes the world once again!
My vote is 5S S for Security, but I love the idea that S might be for screen size! What I hope the S does not stand for is Stagnate!
* Mophie Juice Pack $79 … and snap them together.
- 12 iPhone 5's
- 6 iPod touch
- 12 iPad 4's
- 12 iPad minis
- 2 new iPhone 4S with 8GB
- 2 existing iPhone 4's were renewed
- a few hundred thousand new 3rd party iOS apps
- about 10,000 new 3rd party hardware accessories
- plus about 12 Lightning/Bluetooth-equipped touch iPod nanos that are almost iOS devices
- plus new Macs — including Retina Macs — that provide the iOS developer/producer/publisher platform and which work more like iOS devices than ever … so what is the problem, really? Does the mobile shopper really lack choices at Apple Store?
I remember the idea about NFC coming on the 5 - I was really hoping that would happen... but I bought the 5 anyway. I will want a 5S if that happens...
Based on recent history, Apple will come out with a 5S, which won't contain any substantial upgrade (camera, chip, possibly screen). They will have one interesting software feature, which will probably be social in nature, and that's it. No real surprises. I wish it were different, but you can't redesign the wheel on a yearly basis. Apple has pulled some surprises before, and we can all hope that happens again.
Bob, from the great state of ALASKA.
Otherwise, I think Apple is going to proceed with their ongoing strategy to cut off some of Samsung's air supply. Greatly reducing parts purchased from Samsung is one way of doing this. Shipping a phone that can tap the most profitable part of the prepaid market would be another key aspect.
Now, if that low end phone looked a lot like a plastic iPhone 5 AND the iPhone 5s turned into a very different iPhone 6, then we would know that bold and visionary management still fills the offices in Cupertino.