James Scariati

Apple and the Spectre of Decline

Tim Wu in The New Republic:

There are, meanwhile, long-term dangers in Apple’s grand patent campaign, both for the company itself and the industry at large. Since the 1970s, winning and losing in tech has been generally, if not always, a matter of merit. Each of Apple’s great victories, from the Macintosh to the iPhone, came by building great products.

Apple’s resort to patent law is a completely different way of doing business. It’s an appeal to the federal government for protection against competition. It can be effective, but relying on public help is an addictive habit, and unhealthy over the long term.

Apple didn’t sue Samsung to prevent competition – they sued Samsung to prevent them from creating products so strikingly similar to Apple’s own that consumers couldn’t tell the difference. If their intent was to prevent competition itself, they would have sued every smartphone manufacturer under the sun, not just Samsung specifically.

While supposedly affecting how its competitors make products, Apple’s patents may do more to change its own products. That’s because they create an incentive to build things that are safely protected behind its proven “patent shield.” As Edgar puts it, with patent protection in place, “the innovation required to make a new product seem desirable will increase exponentially.” This may be one of the reasons the iPhone 5 looks and works so much like its predecessors.

No, the iPhone 5 looks and works like previous iPhones because it’s a good design that has been proven to work well and sell well. Apple doesn’t change product designs willy-nilly just because; they change them to make them better.

Not to mention, the iPhone 5 was designed long before this “patent protection” was actually in place, so the timeline here doesn’t even make sense.

This isn’t to say that Apple has accomplished nothing. Instead, the experts suggest it has built itself a shield against knock-offs–literal copies of the style of its phones and iPad that might make you mistake for the authentic items. Call it “Louis Vuitton” protection–good against counterfeiters, but not control of the whole handbag market.

Exactly. And that’s what Samsung was doing – producing products that were so similar to Apple’s that they could be mistaken for each other. Which directly contradicts the argument earlier in the article that they sued to prevent “competition.”

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Thoughts on the iPhone 5

The Name

The name “iPhone 5” is interesting. When the third-generation iPad was introduced, Apple simply called it “the new iPad” rather than incrementing the version number from 2 to 3. That led many (myself included) to assume that the next iPhone would be called “the new iPhone.”

Dropping the version number from the iPad makes sense if you accept Horace Dediu‘s theory that this was done in order to make room for a sub-brand, such as “iPad Mini.” Using sub-brands in place of version numbers lets Apple update all the models in a particular product line without causing confusion as to which one is the newest – they all are. As an example, just look at iPods, which are updated yearly and simply called “the new iPod Nano,” “the new iPod Shuffle,” etc. every year.

Since there are no sub-brands for the iPhone, it then follows that the new model would retain the version number.

One other oddity: the iPhone 5 is actually the sixth iPhone, not the fifth:

  1. iPhone
  2. iPhone 3G
  3. iPhone 3GS
  4. iPhone 4
  5. iPhone 4S
  6. iPhone 5

If Apple continues the pattern of releasing an “S” model every other year, the version number and actual generation will become increasingly out of sync: iPhone 6 will be the eighth version, iPhone 7 will be the tenth, etc.

The New Lineup

Speaking of patterns, Apple has also continued to offer three generations of iPhones alongside each other, with the new model occupying the top position and the others sliding down a notch: iPhone 4 (“free”) / iPhone 4S ($99) / iPhone 5 ($199/$299/$399).

The iPhone 4 makes for a damn nice “free” phone. A mere two years ago, this was the top-of-the-line model, introducing the Retina display and a new industrial design. Now you get it for free with a new contract. And with the iPhone 4 occupying the bottom position in the lineup, this means that all iPhones now have Retina displays.

Another interesting point about the iPhone 4 replacing the iPhone 3GS: Verizon and Sprint now gain a “free” model (the 3GS was only ever a GSM phone, so it was restricted to AT&T).

The 4″ Display

The iPhone 5’s taller 4″ display marks the first time that the display’s physical dimensions have changed since the original iPhone was introduced in 2007 – which means that iPhone app developers will also have to support two different display sizes for the first time. Assuming Apple continues to release new iPhones on a yearly schedule, and assuming they continue to sell three generations alongside each other (both of which seem likely), it will take until 2014 for the 4″ display to filter down to all models – but even then, there will still be tons of iPhone 4Ss and 4s in use. So developers are going to have to support both display sizes for many years to come.

I was skeptical of Apple making the display larger, but I think they’ve done it in a way that makes sense: the physical phone has only gotten slightly taller, while the larger display occupies a greater percentage of the front face than the display on previous iPhones. The width remains exactly the same. This means you get more vertical room for content – emails, webpages, etc. – without the phone becoming so much bigger or wider that you can’t comfortably hold it and use it with one hand.

iOS 6 and the iPhone 3GS

I was surprised that the iPhone 3GS didn’t stick around for another year, mainly because iOS 6 will still support it. For the first time, Apple is supporting the current version of iOS on an iPhone model that they no longer sell.

If you bought an iPhone 3GS within the first year of its release, you’ll receive your third free, major-version iOS update next week (iOS 6, following iOS 5 in 2011 and iOS 4 in 2010). This is in stark contrast to Android smartphones, which are lucky to receive even one major-version update over their lifetimes (many Android phones even ship with out-of-date operating systems and are never fully brought up to date).

Of course, the iPhone 3GS (and older iPhones in general) won’t actually support many features of iOS 6 – but, crucially, they’ll remain capable of running third-party apps that require iOS 6. I believe this is the real reason behind extending OS support so far back.

Product Secrecy

Alongside the iPhone 5, Apple introduced new headphones, which they’ve dubbed EarPods. Obviously, I can’t comment on the sound quality or comfort of the new headphones as I haven’t used them, but something struck me during the keynote: it was mentioned that EarPods had been in development for three years.

This is why secrecy is so important to Apple – by not revealing products until they’re done, Apple’s competitors can’t get a head start and match or beat them to market. If a competitor wants to do their own take on EarPods, for example, but they don’t start on development until they actually see the final product from Apple, they’re now already three years behind.

Which makes it all the more interesting how much information about the iPhone 5 itself leaked ahead of time. This must be the “most-leaked” product in Apple’s history. We knew literally everything about the phone before it was released: the taller display, the exact display resolution and pixel density, the new industrial design, the internal specs (LTE, the A6 processor, etc.), the new “Lightning” dock connector, and more. I don’t believe there was a single “surprise” detail of the iPhone 5 that no one knew about earlier.

The New Dock Connector

Apple is calling the new dock connector Lightning, which is interesting, because the former 30-pin connector never had a brand name associated with it (also, it’s a cute pun – Thunderbolt for Macs, Lightning for iOS devices).

This is the first time that the dock connector has been changed on an iOS device (“classic” iPods briefly used a standard Firewire connector before the 30-pin connector was introduced).

Aside from the significantly reduced size, another benefit of the new connector is that it’s reversible – you can insert it with either side facing up, just like a MagSafe connector on a Mac.

The next iPhone

Obviously, Apple is not going to change the iPhone’s display or dock connector again any time soon. Combined with the now-traditional pattern of a new iPhone model followed up by an “S” model the year after, it seems highly likely that next year’s new iPhone will be the iPhone 5S – the same physical design with improved internal specs.

Why Hasn’t Windows Phone Taken Off?

This question comes up a lot in tech circles: why hasn’t Windows Phone taken off?

The product has been showered with near-unanimous praise – reviewers love it, the consumers who use it rate it highly, and its design is innovative and unique. It seems to check all the boxes for a smash hit product, and yet…it has had virtually no impact on the market.

I think Windows Phone isn’t taking off because it occupies a weird in-between space where it doesn’t have support from consumers, carriers, or OEMs.

The iPhone has huge support from consumers: it’s a highly-desireable product, everyone knows and trusts the brand, etc. People will go as far as to switch carriers to get an iPhone, which is virtually unheard of otherwise. That, in turn, creates huge support from carriers for the iPhone, since offering it can draw in tons of new customers.

Android has huge support from the carriers: it gives them something “iPhone-like” that they can offer if they either (a) don’t carry the iPhone, or (b) want more control over the product than Apple will give them. Android also has huge support from OEMs: they can use it for free and tweak it however they see fit.

Windows Phone, however, fails on all three counts:

  • Consumers either have no idea it exists or think it’s related to Windows Mobile
  • Carriers have no incentive to carry the product when consumers aren’t asking for it
  • OEMs have no incentive to use it since they have to both pay for it and cede control to Microsoft

So I think in order for Windows Phone to succeed, Microsoft has to do something to give at least one of those groups reason to support it.

Teen Accused of Shoplifting with EasyPay

18-year-old Eric Shine was arrested at an Apple Store after being accused of attempting to shoplift a pair of headphones using Apple’s EasyPay system:

It was an undercover Apple security employee and a store manager who stopped Shine, accusing him of possessing stolen property. “I pulled out my iPhone, and realized it still showed the Pay Now button, and not the receipt,” Shine said. “I told them I had no intent of stealing; I’ve been in the store for an hour, and I’m still willing to purchase the headphones.” That didn’t satisfy the Apple Store staff.

While it does seem like he made a legitimate mistake, the problem is that someone who really is trying to steal could do the same thing as a “cover”: walk through the whole EasyPay process, stop before actually paying, and then attempt to leave the store.

Hopefully, this one event won’t cause Apple to reconsider the whole system (the fact that such a situation hasn’t come up until now, almost a year after EasyPay’s introduction, is a testament to how well it works the large majority of the time).

Rather than canning the whole thing, I think future situations like this can be avoided with a few small tweaks:

  • Once an item has been added to the cart, place a persistent banner across the top of each EasyPay screen that indicates that the item hasn’t yet been paid for
  • On the last screen (where you tap the Purchase button), automatically remove the item from the cart if the button isn’t tapped within a small window of time (say 30 seconds)

These two modifications would make it very difficult for someone to walk out of the store claiming that they thought they purchased an item – there will either be a big banner that reads “Not Paid” right there on their phone, or they’ll have neither an item in their cart nor a receipt for it.