TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Apple drifts from the cutting edge

Apple fans expected the iPhone 5 to reinforce their loyalty in the company's design-first ethos. Instead it left them cynical over the lack of innovation in the tech giant's latest product.

Technology Spectator

The iPhone 5… meh. There, I said it.

Actually, I was toying with two other ways to describe this launch; "iPhone 5, the emperor has no clothes,” or "iPhone 5, what’s in a name when a phone by another would operate the same.”

Look, I’ve been going through the same rationalisation process I think a lot of other people have. Is it fair to expect Apple to move heaven and earth with every announcement? Why fret, the really cool stuff is in iOS6, not so much the phone. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that with all the build up, the iPhone 5 announcement had all the impact of being hit by a wet noodle.

Now, I’m not stating this as a Gartner analyst but as a dedicated Apple customer. And I’m definitely no Apple-hater looking for a reason to knock the company. I’ve spent my own cash for my iPhone 4 in spite of the fact Gartner would fully fund the cost of the latest Blackberry. I parked my company ThinkPad in a dusty spot under my desk and bought my own MacBook Air to use at work , much to the consternation of our IT department. Heck, I even lined up in front of the Sydney Apple Store on the day of the new iPad announcement for my 64GB, white, Wi-Fi model. I have enough of the company’s products in my house that with an Apple logo on my mailbox and a blue t-shirt I could open an Apple store.

I’ll be perfectly honest with you. My disappointment is directly related to the fact that I’ve been spending a little time with Windows 8. The new Metro/WinRT design language is a design innovation of the highest order. Nor am I the only one taking notice. Add to that the new Lumia 920 and 820 smartphones which are evolving an alternative industrial design perspective. Microsoft and its partners are beginning to offer a compelling alternative vision for the smartphone.

My gripe…no, my concern…with the iPhone 5 is not that Apple made it. It’s that Apple has diluted the value of their well-crafted product launch strategy. Apple has earned my continued attention because these big productions have been used to announcing big changes in the way we experience and interact with digital technology. They are a celebration of what a company driven by a deeply ingrained design ethos can accomplish as compared to those that prefer to market the incremental technical achievements of their engineers.

What is Apple ultimately offering with the iPhone 5? Speeds and feeds. New processor, larger screen, different connector, LTE support, thinner form factor. Don’t get me wrong – these things are important. And they constitute some fantastic engineering work to hang it all together. But is it fundamentally changing my experience with a smartphone? No, not really. So why does this new product need a new version number? Why rent out the Yerba Buena Center? They could have called this "the new iPhone 4S” and just rolled it into the retail channel without the hoopla and fanfare. It would still be a great – a competitive phone. On September 12, Apple became the company that I would prefer to ignore. The type of company that tells me that another processor core, a couple of gigs more of storage, even the casing materials, are things that I really need to get excited about.

There are, of course, many people that will rave about the iPhone 5 because that’s what you’re supposed to do when Apple launches any new product. At one level, it can be quite funny as Jimmy Kimmel recently exposed. They handed people an existing iPhone 4S, told them it was a new iPhone 5 and then listened to them rave about how much lighter, faster and clearer it was – even from people that owned an iPhone 4S.

I haven’t lost my passion for Apple products. While I’m gobsmacked at what Microsoft has accomplished with the Metro design language I’m not converted as yet. But I can’t help but feel that Apple used the iPhone 5 launch for marketing over substance. And for the first time ever a word has, only for a brief moment, crossed my mind in relationship to Apple.

Cynical.

Brian Prentice is a research vice president at Gartner Australia and a writer for the Gartner blog. You can see his profile here.

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