Like all good technophiles, I sat watching the live blogging feeds from Cupertino on Tuesday 10th September with that sense of anticipation that Apple are notoriously good at inducing. Would there be an iWatch? a 4000K iTV perhaps? Nope. Neither. I for one am quite pleased about this. It exudes a quiet confidence in what they do; I don’t want Apple to have countless product lines, I just want a few products that achieve exceptional levels of quality and innovation in every nuanced design detail. Not much to ask for really.
One thing that Apple are not quite as good at doing these days is keeping their shiny new toys a secret until launch day. Ironic as it’s probably the iPhone that’s enabled all the spy shots that proliferate the web weeks before Apple’s reveal. I myself have some personal experience of this (and still secretly regret not sharing it with the world at the time). A few years back during one of my many trips to China’s manufacturing mecca, Shenzen, we were visiting a paint factory. It was in the board room that I spied a familiar looking logo on the rear of a sculpted slab of plastic. As soon as I asked if that was the latest Apple product it was as though I’d opened Pandora’s box. Security staff were called in to swiftly remove the offending item. Two months later it was revealed as the rear moulding on the latest incarnation of the iMac. Stuff gets out, and keeping it a secret these days is a whole lot harder than it used to be.
So what would be up Apple’s metaphorical sleeve this time? 6:23pm BST…First we are treated to a sea of colour in the shape of multiple 5C iPhones. This is Apple’s first foray into more mass market territory and crucially the product they hope will open more Apple stores in China. The standout headline for me was that Apple had embraced plastic again. This is significant as the last phone Apple manufactured in plastic was the original iPhone. It’s also significant because the same mantra of “unapologetically plastic” was almost word for word the phrase our advisory board member and VP of design at Nokia Here, Peter Skillman had used when discussing Nokia’s new products over lunch a couple of months ago. Apple have definitely lost the lead here. They are treading unfamiliar ground that others are already trampling on.
One of Apple’s key design philosophies is honesty in materials. In order to elevate plastic above the disposable tag it has acquired over the years, they have reinforced and hard coated it to create a glossy outer shell that doesn’t feel “plastic-y”. You could argue this isn’t being true to the material or you might say it’s elevating it to a new status. Without the luxury of actually handling one yet, I will reserve judgment.
The 5C is also the first iPhone to have a custom designed case. No doubt there are toolmakers all over China frenziedly machining blocks of steel in the race to launch the first copies. Apple don’t normally do cases. I’m sure Sir Jony’s opinion is that he and his team have slaved over every detail of the design in an effort to strip away all embellishment and create the essence of minimalism in the most compact form possible. And what do the majority of consumers do to repay his efforts? Slap a rubber sheath over it like some kind of technological prophylactic (“I must not make unprotected phone calls!”) What this does give them with the 5C is the ability to control the design of this unrestricted market. After all they control every other aspect of the Apple experience so why not own the aftermarket case as well? It’s a kind of can’t beat them join them mentality. The case with it’s perforated rear does at least add to the playful aesthetic enabling multiple colour combinations.The opportunities for mix and match mass customisation, not to mention repeat sales, are endless. Fancy green and red together? Buy a new case.
6:34pm BST…So now we have the main event. The eagerly awaited next generation iPhone, the 5S. My first thoughts are they haven’t bowed to the fickle whims of those clamouring for a new form factor (as befits the “S” suffix). I really find it amazing that we as consumers get so bored of products, that we expect a new look every season. It’s not fashion people!
Product obsolescence and the slow creep towards commodisatation of everything we once cherished for it’s longevity and design integrity seems to be part of our cultural makeup these days. I applaud Apple for not following suit. There is a need to re-educate the consumer (and for that matter most of the buyers I’ve ever met) that good design lasts. If Apple just redesigned the form factor every time there was a new launch they would never be able to make small iterative tweaks that make the next generation just that bit better. Ask Porsche…they’ve been doing it for a lot longer than Apple.
Of course the other reason for such small changes to the form, along with ROI on the bespoke machinery and tooling, is that there really is nowhere for them to go: nothing else can be taken away. They have shrink wrapped the electronics as much as they can. Apple moved on from the organic vernacular of ten years ago partly because the technology encouraged it, it was no longer necessary to disguise large batteries and obtrusive antenna by wrapping them in compound surfaces. Until we enter a new realm of graphene displays Apple’s design is inexorably tethered to the technology that drives it. Any changes until then become styling whimsy…not something that is in Apple’s DNA.
The personal connection we feel with our smartphones just got a boost with the 5S. Fingerprint recognition. This is the point that I should insert a pithy joke about the NSA…but I won’t. Fingerprint recognition is nothing new, but it’s the execution of the detail and the integration with iOS7 that makes it a perfect addition to the Apple experience. It makes a tedious task (inputting the pin) obsolete. Don’t think about the level of engineering excellence at play here. In fact don’t think about it at all…you don’t have to anymore. Making the technology invisible is at the heart of every design decision Apple make.
Another foray into pastures new is the inclusion of an accelerometer, or “motion co-processor” to use Apple’s jargon. This starts to encroach on the space owned by FitBit, Jawbone and Nike. Lucky for the latter then that they are already working with Apple to develop new Nike apps that take advantage of this technology. Improvements to the camera include a new larger sensor and better flash capabilities. In movie mode it is now capable of shooting at 120 frames per second enabling some great opportunities for slo-mo. I can only imagine the plethora of bizarre animal antics and soft rock ballad videos that will be uploaded to YouTube and Vine after this.
Of course we can’t end this without talking about iOS 7. Much has already been written about the subject (skeuomorphism, blah, blah) so I won’t rehash old ground. What I will say however is that I’ve been using the Beta since iOS7 was announced and you know what? It’s bloody good. As Apple say themselves, they have managed to make the familiar new and exciting. The biggest compliment I can give it is that I don’t really think about it. I just enjoy using it. Like everything with Apple it really is that simple. We may marvel at times at the level of execution they achieve with their products but for the most part we just enjoy their efforts.