Evolution, iteration, or however you want to refer to incremental development is essential for achieving design perfection. Not very exciting though is it?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I used to look forward to the 12 month cycle of mobile phone upgrades. The whole process doesn’t set my pulse racing in the same way it used to and as a self-confessed design, tech and Apple fan, that makes me sad.
The last non-Apple phone I owned was a Samsung Z720, because it was small, light and inoffensive. I bought this just before the first iPhone launched and by the time my one-year contract ran out, the iPhone 3G was poised to appear on the scene.
Smartphone ownership wasn’t unfamiliar territory thanks to my time spent with a Sony Ericsson P900 back when a stylus was the only available input device so I took the plunge and opted for a two-year contract on a 3G. The 3S arrived a year later, leaving me feeling suitably vindicated for taking out a longer contract – the big changes were under the skin.
And so the two-year cycle began. I purchased an iPhone 4, 24 months later a 5... and now I find myself confronted with two new Apple smartphones, the 5c and 5s.
Tech pundits and financial markets alike have chastised the Cupertino giant for not matching Android handsets punch for punch and saturating the free handset market. This isn’t where Apple plays, for very good reason – their perceived value drops, dragging higher spec hardware down with it and introducing an audience unwilling to pay for content.
Apple has successfully cultivated a level of desirability global competitors can only dream of and their hardware retains its aspirational glow thanks to superior material quality, reliability and premium pricing.
Apple’s rivals are consistently guilty of innovation for innovation’s sake, trying to second-guess the market rather than shape it. Samsung is one of the worst offenders, throwing as many digital gimmicks at their handsets as possible in the vain hope that consumers will buy according to checklists rather than useful features. Eye tracking and facial recognition sound impressive but once they’ve been demonstrated in the pub, how many users turn them off again?
Similar criticism has been leveled at Apple following the inclusion of their new fingerprint scanner, Touch ID. Statistics show that very few smartphone users set a passcode so why not make it as simple as possible to secure your handset? Yep, I’ve seen plenty of comments that laptops have had this functionality for years – but they never looked this good! There’s a level of theatre involved that sums up Apple’s appeal to its users and we want to use the hardware, we don’t just feel we have to.
So, has Apple done enough to stay at the top of the smartphone heap? Yes, for one more year. The 5s is a beautifully designed, beautifully made piece of technology that you actually want to spend time with. The 5c makes a great support act, helping its shinier brother appear more sophisticated, seem better specced and offer better value. iOS7 is the added ingredient that gives the evolutionary hardware a revolutionary edge.
Apple must return to significant 12 month product cycles if it intends to stay ahead of the competition. Early iMac updates changed the form factor significantly between the original Bondai, to the angle-poise, to the all-in-one screen but the profile has barely changed in the past 8 years, where design strategy has focused on perfecting the shape, essentially removing the computer and leaving us with the screen – the centre of our attention.
This approach works with larger hardware because of frequency of purchase. We don’t feel the need to renew an expensive piece of desktop equipment as often as a personal mobile device.
The phone market is a different animal where ownership is about features, reliability and user experience but more than anything, it’s about personality. Spectacular product design, ergonomics, weight distribution and use of tactile materials delivers this but we want to be moved emotionally and don’t like to wait two years to see any significant changes.
I’m one of Steve Jobs’ ‘Crazy Ones’ that queues up at 5am on release day, so I want to make damn sure it’s worth the effort every 12 months.
One more thing...
Well it’s a couple of things really – two new iPads. I wrote about new iPhones safe in the knowledge that, like busses, we’d see some Apple tablets come along in quick succession.
The faster and pixelier Retina iPad Mini and super-slim iPad Air are both superb examples of iVolution in action. I may have complained about the iPhone’s biannual updates but these devices illustrate the need for incremental development. When a product is all about the screen (and the content displayed upon it) nibbling away at everything but the glass is perfectly acceptable.
Making the device faster, thinner, lighter and clearer are all more important than unnecessary bolt-on innovation. By 2020 we could just be interacting with a sheet of glass or plastic in varying sizes but where’s the personality or the brand in that?
When your audience demands more and more from less and less, the design and innovation challenges lie in retaining some form of standout in a fiercely competitive market. Every mobile device manufacturer faces the same issue and focus will be increasingly on how and why something works and how it makes the user feel, not merely on how it looks or a long list of features.
Long live the smartphone revolution. Long live the tablet evolution.
Edited and updated from my column in this month's iCreate magazine.