What Do iPhone 5 Critics Want?

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.


Why NFC is Irrelevant To the Mass Market

NFC technologies have been around for quite some time. Many years back my firm did some market analysis on NFC for Philips Semiconductor about the time it was spun off to become NXP. In doing this we spoke with retailers, merchants, payment gateways, etc., in order to better understand the infrastructure change necessary to fully deploy NFC. Without going into that in depth analysis, I will tell you that it is difficult and costly.

What Problem Does it Solve?

Due to the fairly extensive new infrastructure that would need to be deployed in order to broadly deploy NFC, retailers would need to be convinced that it would lead to more transactions in their stores AND not be something that goes by the wayside to some new technology in just a few years. Many retailers are already struggling and faced with significant challenges that need to be solved. They recognize that the mass majority of consumers are not out there clamoring for NFC nor even recognize the need or have the desire for a new payment process.

But the key to addressing NFC is to look at what problem it solves. Perhaps even better stated, does it solve a pain point in the payment process today. I would suggest that it does not.

Humans are creatures of habit. Keeping a number of credit cards in a wallet or purse and pulling out the correct one to make a purchase is not a massive inconvenience for many. The challenge with NFC is that its value proposition is only to replace credit cards in a commerce market. That is the only process it is addressing in a retail environment. Retailers have much more pressing problems to worry about. Like consumers using their stores to showroom and then go and buy online. Or other retailers rigorously competing to steal loyal customers, etc.

I am more interesting in technologies or opportunities to completely revolutionize the shopping experience. This is something NFC does not address.

Let’s Change the Shopping Experience

When thinking about how the future of shopping may be shaped, I like to use Apple stores as an example. It is possible with the Apple Store application to explore, learn, get help, and more, all from an application. This application is designed to make the in store experience more helpful and more engaging. Apple has also integrated into the application an easy pay method that allows you to scan the product you want to buy, and pay for it right there using your iTunes account. So without NFC, and no new infrastructure, Apple has integrated a simple and engaging experience as well as an opportunity to complete a transaction all without NFC. Apple is deploying more of a “closed-loop” payment system using their trusted relationship with the consumer and iTunes as a gateway. Exploring how apps and these “closed-loop” systems may benefit retailers is an interesting scenario to think though.

If I was a retailer would I rather invest in a massive amount of new infrastructure that only solves a payment gateway problem or invest in experiences like the one possible in Apple stores that keep my customers engaged with my store and the products I carry?

The reality is there is nothing that can be done with NFC that can not be done by an app and a connection to the Internet.

Changing the in-store shopping experience in a way that address the challenges retailers are having is not something NFC solves. I believe in mobile payments and I believe in machine to machine communication. I am just not sure NFC is the way forward when their may be better solutions readily available. NFC may have a role in that environment but it is not in the foreseeable future.