Apple has announced two new iPhones that represent a minor set of upgrades to the existing iPhone X (iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max), a new Apple Watch and the iPhone X R, a colourful aluminium-bodied model, with a new screen dubbed ‘Liquid Retina’. I’m not going to slavishly list the specs or features of the new products. There are already a hundred places online where you can read about them in exhaustive detail. They’ll be good products. They’ll take even better pictures and videos, let you play far more advanced games, render augmented reality apps even more realistically. Most of us will still use them for browsing Twitter, using WhatsApp and listening to music.
We’re in the twilight era of the smartphone when announcing incredible technologies is almost expected. The –– undeniably impressive –– fact that the Apple Watch Series 4 can perform an ECG for you, somehow feels less stunning than back in 2007 when Steve Jobs provoked ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd by revealing that the original iPhone combined a phone, an iPod, and an ‘internet communicator’ in one single touchscreen package.
The pace of smartphone development has spoiled us and the Apple Event format hasn’t caught up with that. The hyperbolic narrative provided by Apple execs — the new Apple Watch can “change the way you live every day” apparently — feels cloying and, to British ears, achingly faux-humble. When an entire segment of the presentation is dedicated to the company’s increased usage of recycled and bio-based materials, you have to applaud it, but also roll your eyes a little. Being told Apple is committed to “longer lasting products” in the middle of a yearly jamboree designed to make you ditch your old phone feels faintly ridiculous.
Because that’s what any tech event is designed to prompt in us: The feeling of missing out, the sense that what we have in our hands is not quite good enough anymore. The trouble is that Apple Events have become the tech presentation equivalent of a Fast & Furious movie. The stunts get bigger, the explosions get louder, the characters get more ridiculous, but the thrills are lessened by familiarity. We expect Apple to both deliver incredible things and, especially those of us who have watched these launches for years, to find out in the following weeks that there are at least a few issues with the new features and designs.
When we’ve heard variations of the phrase, “This is the most advanced phone we’ve ever created”, emerge from the mouths of Apple executives like clockwork for 11 years, is it any surprise that so many of us just sort of shrug now? The same goes for the breathless business stories about how much money Apple is making and how many phones it’s selling. That’s what it does. That’s what it’s done for years now. The underdog story that it represented in the days of the first iMac and the arrival of the iPod is like some kind of medieval myth now. Most people just don’t remember when Apple wasn’t the unstoppable trillion dollar giant.
And in the avalanche of specs and features, there’s a certain absence of polish and focus that we came to expect in the Steve Jobs era. Apple releases too much now, with names that sound increasingly ridiculous. It made sense when it had no more than two models of iPhone at any one time — the one from last year that was a little more affordable and the latest one that everyone craved. Now it’s product names sound like the product of over-caffeinated 12-year-olds throwing letters around — “Behold! The iPhone XS Max!” — and there are arguably just too many choices for the consumer. In the end, for most, it comes down to cost.
I realise this all sounds dreadfully cynical and, in some ways, it is. But I like Apple! I’m writing this review on my second-hand iMac, with an iPhone 8 on the desk beside me, and an iPad Pro in my bag. It’s just that these excessively jubilant consumerist jamborees got boring long ago. There’s no doubt that building the capability to take ECGs into a beautiful watch is impressive or that the year-on-year increases in the power of the iPhone are astounding, but so what? Things like improved battery life — only minor in these new models — and the inclusion of dual SIM will matter a lot more to many people than the new headline features.
Apple needs a new way to tell its stories and some new products to tell them about. We can’t be too far from the point when a new iPhone gets a much quicker unveiling and whatever the next innovation Apple has in the R&D department takes centre stage. Show us that AR headset, Tim. Or bring on the Project Titan car we’ve been hearing whispers about for so long. Still, I know the new phones are headed for millions of pockets and the new Apple Watch will take pride of place on millions of wrists. That’s as boring an inevitability as the event that announced them.
Co-founder & CEO, The Means Agency