The Digital World with Ryan Simon: The iPhone 5 is Apple’s Least Interesting Phone

iPhone 5 Maps Photo
Photo Courtesy of Apple.com

Last week saw the release of Apple’s annual revision of their incredibly successful iPhone smartphone. If there is one word that captures the essence of the new iPhone 5, it’s “boring.” Now, before people throw up their arms and write me off as a biased Apple basher, let me clarify a few things. Apple and their iPhone have seen tremendous success thanks to the simple and intuitive nature of the iPhone’s operating system, better known as iOS, and I commend them for it. The iPhone 5 ships with the newest iOS 6 and it continues Apple’s trademark trend of simplicity. What I argue isn’t that the iPhone 5 is a terrible phone, but that it isn’t doing anything excitingly innovative or market-changing—something Apple claims their phones do on each release. iOS is getting stale and Apple’s hardware design is no longer ahead of the curve.

The Biggest Thing to Happen to iPhone? Nope.

If you go to Apple’s website, as of this writing, you’ll see an advertisement for the iPhone 5 that states it’s “the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone.” I laughed when I saw it. In some ways they’re right. Literally speaking, the iPhone 5 does have a larger screen than all the previous iPhones. Analyzing the figurative undertones asserted by a statement like that, they couldn’t be more wrong. In some ways, the iPhone 5 is actually a step back from the iPhone 4S. Many reviewers of Apple’s newest flagship device have noted that the iPhone’s new Maps app has many major bugs and is missing features that were once a part of Google Maps—which was the iPhone’s previous mapping software. Why would Apple make such a detrimental change to their software this late in the game? It’s because Google, including its Android mobile platform, is a major competitor.

Let’s revisit what actually makes the iPhone 5 bigger; its screen isn’t as great an addition to the iPhone ecosystem as Apple would like you to believe. Due to how Apple instructs developers to create apps for iOS, many apps will not initially be able to take advantage of the extra screen real estate afforded by the iPhone 5’s bigger 4-inch screen. In fact, of the over 600,000 apps available in Apple’s app store, only a few thousand have been updated to be fully compatible with iOS 6 and the iPhone 5’s larger display. Instead of filling the iPhone 5’s full screen, most apps will display in their original 3.5-inch format with black borders on the top and bottom of the app. Yes, eventually most apps will be updated for the new iPhone, but it’s a rather odd inconvenience that users of other smartphones (like Android and Windows Phone) don’t have to deal with.

A New Phone with Old Tech

Alright, so the screen isn’t as fantastic as Apple would want you to believe. Next reason why the iPhone 5 is underwhelming has to do with what’s packaged inside the iPhone’s shell. It’s not exactly a new idea coming from Apple, but the iPhone 5’s technical specifications are outdated by the mobile industry’s standards. Of course, as Apple’s marketing is so good at doing, they recycle ideas from existing technology and present them as brand spanking new and “better” on iPhone. One “new” iPhone technology is LTE 4G—a high-speed wireless service that has been offered by Verizon Android phones for nearly two years now. How about that high-resolution screen on the iPhone 5? It’s been available on Android for over a year now. The cool panorama camera mode? That’s old news too.

In fact, some very interesting technology like NFC (Near-Field Communication) didn’t even make it into the new iPhone, despite it being available on other popular smartphones for over a year. Even the iPhone’s physical hardware design is starting to bore. Why not try something a little different, Apple? The iPhone may have a good-looking industrial design, but others have improved upon it. Nokia is doing it with their Lumia line of phones, and HTC has their One series. The Samsung Galaxy SIII isn’t a slouch in the looks department either. If there’s one thing that should change though, it’s Apple’s aging mobile platform: iOS.

iOS Needs a Refresh

Some will argue it’s not all about the technical specifications, and I agree. It’s important that a smartphone also have useful and interesting software to take advantage of the hardware. After six years of supposed innovation, Apple’s iOS has barely changed. With all the neat and rather useful things Windows Phone and Android are doing, I am beginning to wonder why Apple is so reluctant to take risks on their platform. I keep thinking it’s so that they don’t confuse the current iPhone fanbase with extreme design changes, but I don’t think that’s why. I’m starting to believe Apple is afraid that mobile platforms like Android will jump even farther ahead if current iPhone developers are forced to relearn app development on a radically different iOS. They have a right to be concerned, but they should remember what got RIM’s once exceptionally popular BlackBerry smartphone brand into the hole it has dug itself into, and that’s complacency.

Actually, if there’s one message I am trying to get across is that Apple should stop being so complacent
with their iPhone. Apple makes some great phones, there’s no doubt about it, but they could be so much more captivating and useful if Apple would actually try something different with their iPhone formula. Steal some ideas from Android if you have to; it’s about time you made some more serious additions to your phone other than Siri and a fifth row of app icons.

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