What Do iPhone 5 Critics Want?

by Steve Wildstrom   |   September 14th, 2012

iPhone 5 photoApple’s announcement of the iPhone 5 has unleashed a remarkable wailing and gnashing of teeth in the tech media (for example): Apple has failed to hit us with shock and awe. Apple has become the new Microsoft, resting on its laurels and letting its platform petrify. Apple can’t innovate anymore.

Most of this nonsense seems to be the work of jaded writers who simply don’t have a whole lot to say. What almost all of this criticism fails to do is tell us what the new iPhone ought to have been other than something different from what it is. The complaints seem to boil down to “Apple failed to wow us in some way we didn’t expect.” But as I and many others have pointed out, the smartphone market is maturing fast and changes that add value, rather than changes made for their own sake, are getting harder to come by.

Some writers complained that Apple failed to overhaul the user interface. This is true, but what is the argument for changing what remains, five years after it first challenged the limits of BlackBerry and Palm and the horrors of Windows Mobile, an exceptionally intuitive and elegant design. Apple has been very careful in evolving the iOS interface. But it hasn’t been static. For example, it solved the problem of modal notifications in iOs 5. Should it add live tiles? Of course, this would require a completely new UI. And if the best argument for live tiles is Windows Phone, that platform’s failure so far to make any headway is not much of a case for the appeal of that approach.

Apple has been roundly criticized for failure to incorporate NFC. But as my colleague Ben Bajarin points out, NFC is a mostly solution in search of a problem. Especially in the U.S., there has been little movement by retailers to install the infrastructure needed to support NFC,

The new iPhone screen size has been the subject of rather odd criticism, since the company is accused of imitating Android by going to a larger display when the particular display size it chose is unique. Apple deliberately avoided the sort of mega-screen that had graced recent high-end Android phones, going instead for a screen that is taller than the current iPhone but the same width. One reason Apple avoided a wider display is to maintain the ability to operated the iPhone one-handed, especially for people—like many women—with smaller hands.

I can’t explain just why but the new phone feels very good in hand. It’s actually only a bit lighter than the iPhone 4, but the difference seems more significant, perhaps because the long, relatively narrow design, makes it better balanced. The differences are subtle, but the new aluminum back and precision-machined sides just feel right.

Of course, there are two major changes in the new model. One, which no one is criticizing, is the addition of high-speed LTE wireless. The other is the replacement of the venerable 30-pin dock connector with a new design, dubbed Lightning. (Dan Frakes at Macworld has an excellent rundown on Lightning’s capabilities and deficiencies.)

Lightning has inspired the collective ire of tech writers. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, for example, calls it “incredibly irksome.” It’s unfortunate that it orphans nearly a decade worth of cables and accessories based on the 30-pin design, and even more so that Apple plans to charge $30 for a Lightning to 30-pin adapter (I expect cheaper third-party versions are not very far away.)

On the other hand, the 30-pin’s time was up. The connector, always a rather fiddly bit, just claimed too much precious device real estate. Manjoo and others criticize Apple for not using the standardized micro-USB connector, and this objection has some merit. But Lightning has distinct advantages over micro-USB. It’s sturdier and reversible. I found I could easily insert it with my eyes closed on the first try, something difficult if not impossible to do with micro-USB.

Probably the oddest complaint is that Apple no longer surprises us a product announcement. First, this isn’t really true. Although all the salient features of the new iPhone were known before the Sept. 12 unveiling, both the details of the new iPod touch and the existence of a redesigned iPod nano were not known in advance. The lack of secrecy about the iPhone, though, is now inevitable. By scheduling the announcement just 10 days before it expects to ship millions of phones, Apple has to deploy a vast supply chain on a scale that makes its former secrecy impossible.

I know that in my decades as a journalist, I never complained about my success in finding out things that the people I was covering didn’t want me to know about. Hearing people other than Apple executives complain the secrets were found out suggests that some writers don’t have enough real work to do.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • FalKirk

    Good article, Steve.

    What irks me most is the “no-win” or “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” type of criticism.

    - The 30-pin connector is nearly 10 years old and it is dictating the size of future devices. Go back and look at an iPod form 2003. It’s laughably ancient and out of date. Yet that is when the Apple 30-pin connector was introduced too. It’s time has passed.

    - The iOS interface is old and boring? Maybe to critics. But to existing users, it’s consistent and useful. To new users (and some 50% of all iPhone purchases are made by new users) it’s as new as it was to all of us when we first saw it in 2007.

    Criticism is fine. But it should be constructive criticism. No-win criticism or criticism for the sake of criticism is neither useful nor worthwhile.

    • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

      Excellent summary.

  • Defendor

    They want the equivalent of this:
    http://onscreencars.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/TheHomer.jpg

    I see the same reaction to almost every new product released (not just Apple). There seems to be little to differentiate the average forum poster from many so called “analysts”. The one constant is spec sheet worship.

    Whatever it is, it is judged merely on having every feature known to man, and the bigger the numbers on the spec sheet, the better. 4 CPU Cores in a phone? Well it’s a bigger number, that is as deep as the thinking seems to go. No thoughts about tradeoffs ever seem to occur.

    The new connector is brilliant. Double sided redundant pins for orientation freedom. I wish someone had the brains to have made USB orientation free. Also consider that Apple probably had the brains to wire both sides of the socket on devices, dramatically increasing the robustness, and usable life.

    • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

      Ha! Great comparison.

  • Grwisher

    I am more interested in Apple “Profits” that I am in Android “Prophets”. They can criticize Apple all they want.

    • FalKirk

      Grwisher, may I steal that line? I’m thinking of incorporating it into an upcoming article.

      • Grwisher

        You are welcome to whatever you want. It would be a honor.

        • Grwisher

          “an honor” – Sorry.

  • Jurassic

    Steve Ballmer pronounced the first iPhone “dead on arrival”, and completely wrong, asinine opinions about the iPhone have flourished ever since then.

    We can only stand back and shake our heads in disbelief as these “analysts” expound their viewpoints that seem to come from an alternate universe.

    As Einstein said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe!”

  • jfutral

    What i also find kind of funny is the lamenting for the good ole days of Jobs presentations as if things were different back then. I remember reading just as many “snoozefest” articles after a Jobs presentation. Although there seem to be fewer guffaws such as when Jobs first introduced the iPhone and then iPad.

    Joe

    • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

      True. As Apple’s stature increased, the Keynotes past and present were imbued with near magical powers of persuasion.

      But frankly, the stories of such powers were the groundwork for the now also very common trope of Apple’s “VooDoo Marketing”. Rather than accept that Apple’s products were inrceasingly appealing, increasingly sophisticated, exceptionally well made and sold into a solid, now mature ecosystem of support, apps and content, the tech press constructed a narrative where consumers were fooled or tricked into buying Apple’s products. We see this exact concept especially in the financial press. Critics consistently claim despite all the factual information that Apple’s products were just as good as everyone else’s and Apple just did a better job of advertising said products. That Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field” just made people think that Apple has made a superior product. Yet such a claim is incapable of explaining why people keep buying Apple’s products. If it indeed was all advertising, and the competition really was as good or better, Apple would have lost the early adopters to cheaper alternatives after the first and second generations and would never have won 78% of any market, never mind a market were literally every tech company could turn out an MP3 player on a whim. Apple’s market dominance of portable media players never waned, even as the market itself winds down.

      Which of course leads to the follow up to this bankrupt idea: the Apple Zealot. The supposed fact that Apple’s product really are no better or are even worse than the competition won’t make it thru the brain of the Apple Zombie! He/she will buy Apple no matter what! Apple has customers so bamboozeled they line up again and again and again to buy whatever Apple is selling.

      But as with the first trope, the glaring logic hole in this pathetic argument is; where, exactly, did 450 million Apple Zealots come from? Is Apple manufacturing people as well hardware? Apple went from a hard core support base in the 90s of what was certainly less than 20, possibly ten million users, to selling 150 million iPhones in a single year. To over 400 million iTunes accounts. To this, the adherents to the Apple Zealot logic only have one rational response: everyone who buys Apple products is a zealot.

      So now they are left to ask even if this is true, why is it so?

  • pawhite524

    Another “easily agreed with” article full of, IMO, plenty of common sense. Interesting that Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Common sense- the most uncommon sense of all.”
    This certainly would seem to be in agreement with *Jurassic’s* Albert Einstein quote in this thread.

  • Rich

    “What almost all of this criticism fails to do is tell us what the new iPhone ought to have been.”

    Well obviously the new iPhone ought to have either greatly improved your sex life or made you lose 40 pounds! (Your choice as to which it would do.)

    Oh, wait…

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

    I will tell you what they want.

    They want web hits.

    Any other answer is based on the presumption that any thought at all went into these whiny, foolish articles about how an entirely redesigned portable computer that again pushes the state of the art is somehow a disappointment. For Odin’s sake, that fool Lyons wrote his article before the announcement!

  • http://twitter.com/NSResponder John C. Randolph

    What they want is page hits. Duh.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.rosmer Michael Bruce Rosmer

    I heard very clear messages about what iPhone 5 should have been, let’s start with bigger and not just stretched vertically, but horizontally to probably 4.5 inches (Android manufacturers see to have decided 4.7 or 4.8 is the sweet spot). Some would like wireless charging like the Lumia 920, but I think that’s mostly a waste.

    The bigger deal lies in the software, which has evolved minorly but lacks some key features:

    1. Siri needs to clearly make Google Now irrelevant, it doesn’t
    2. Maps needs to be better than Google Maps, it isn’t
    3. Widgets work well on OSX, they are missing from iOS
    4. iCloud (photostream, etc.) should make Dropbox irrelevant, it doesn’t

    What they did is good, the criticism relative to the 4S is extreme, but they didn’t go nearly far enough, the iPhone 5 should have left you with no reason to buy anything else, it didn’t for all the above reasons.

  • jason

    You forgot to mention expandable memory slots. That’s a huge missing feature apple will never add on their phones because it would cut into their pockets. That’s the type out crap people are tired of with apple!

  • jason

    Profits *typo

  • em1tch

    First of all I’m no analyst. I just don’t understand why if someone chooses not to worship the Apple products for all they are worth, you guys become unglued. Let me explain why a lot of people such as myself say it lacked the Wow factor. I am a Droid user so I was keeping my i on the new iphone (get it, i) forget it.

    Any way I was keeping up with it in order to make a fair decision about maybe getting one just because of hearing how great the iphones were. So naturally when hearing about all the new features of the new 5 I was quite disappointed because there was NOTHING mentioned that I haven’t been able to do for at least a year now. Most before the S3, turn by turn Navigation (Really) LTE which is one of the bigger things that was outlined (Really)

    For me, it was a disappointment because I had anticipated something much greater, for an iphone user I imagine the phone was much more appealing because this is an upgrade if you have an iphone and have not been able to take advantage of these things.

    A longer screen, faster speeds, better camera, and new body is not enough to make me switch. I’m sorry. Had I been a iphone user before maybe I would be just as excited as you guys. I’m just saying. If you are saying the new iphone is great then you are also saying the S3 is great as well since they are both comparable now. There are only a handful of things you can do on the s3 now that you cant do on the iphone.