Beyond the iPhone

I enjoy the writing of Farhad Manjoo, tech columnist at The New York Times, but I was prepared for the hottest of hot takes when I saw his latest column, penned just hours after Apple’s latest product unveiling, was titled What’s Really Missing From the New iPhone: Dazzle.1 Once I read it, though, I found a lot to agree with:

Apple has squandered its once-commanding lead in hardware and software design. Though the new iPhones include several new features, including water resistance and upgraded cameras, they look pretty much the same as the old ones. The new Apple Watch does too. And as competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic…

It’s not just that a few new Apple products have been plagued with design flaws. The bigger problem is an absence of delight.

Indeed, it sure seemed to me while watching yesterday’s keynote that the level of excitement and, well, delight peaked early and gradually ebbed away as Apple CEO Tim Cook and his team of presenters got deeper into the details of Apple’s new hardware. Of course a lot of that had to do with the shocking appearance of the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo, on hand to announce Super Mario Run exclusively for iOS.2

The Nintendo news was certainly a surprise,3 but it actually fit in quite well thematically with the opening of the keynote: first was a video of Tim Cook and Carpool Karaoke creator James Corden in a funny skit and a not too subtle reminder that Apple recently bought the upcoming Carpool Karaoke series as an exclusive for Apple Music. That was followed by touting the success of Apple Music and the fact it has “content no one else has” — i.e. more exclusives. Following that up with Mario sure seemed to suggest that Apple was increasingly going to leverage its war chest to differentiate its “good-enough” phones.

The Threat of “Good Enough”

It has been clear for many years that the threat to iPhone growth was not modular Android but the iPhones people already have. The hope with last year’s iPhone 6S launch was that new features like 3D Touch and Live Photos would be compelling enough to drive upgrades, but it turned out that many would-be upgraders had already bought the iPhone 6 and the rest didn’t care; the result was the first iPhone that sold less than a previous model.

At first glance, as Manjoo noted, the iPhone 7 doesn’t seem like it will do much to reverse that trend: it’s mostly the same as the two-year-old iPhone 6 people bought instead of the iPhone 6S, and folks still using older iPhones may very well upgrade — if they upgrade at all — to the cheaper iPhone SE or the newly discounted 6S. After all, as multiple commentators have noted, the most talked-about feature of the iPhone 7 is what it doesn’t have — the headphone jack. Surely no headphone jack + no dazzle = no growth, right?

Well, probably. I have been and remain relatively pessimistic about this iPhone cycle (perhaps because I was overly optimistic last year). However, I was actually very impressed by what Apple introduced yesterday: many of the products and features introduced didn’t make for flashy headlines, but they laid the foundation for both future iPhone features and, more importantly, a future beyond the iPhone.

The iPhone 7 Plus Camera

The annual camera upgrade is always one of the best reasons to upgrade an iPhone, especially if you have little kids creating irreplaceable memories that you want to capture in as high a fidelity as possible. And, as usual, Apple and its suppliers have delivered a better lens, a better sensor, and a better image processor, along with image stabilization on both the iPhone 7 and the iPhone 7 Plus (the iPhone 6S did not have image stabilization, while the iPhone 6S Plus did).

The iPhone 7 Plus, though, retains a photographic advantage over its smaller sibling thanks to the fact it actually has two cameras:

iPhone7Plus-JetBlk-34BR-LeanForward_PR-PRINT

One camera uses the familiar 28mm-equivalent lens found on the iPhone 7, while the second has a 56mm-equivalent lens for superior zooming capabilities (2x optical, which also means digital zooming is viable at longer distances). Apple also demonstrated an upcoming software feature that recreates the shallow depth-of-field that is normally the province of large-sensored cameras with very fast lenses:

Screen Shot 2016-09-08 at 7.30.45 PM

This effect is possible because of those two lenses; because they are millimeters apart, each lens “sees” a scene from a slightly different perspective. By comparing the two perspectives, the iPhone 7 Plus’ image processor can build a depth map that identifies which parts of the scene are in the foreground and which are in the background, and then artificially apply the bokeh that makes a shallow depth-of-field so aesthetically pleasing.

Bokeh, though, is only the tip of the iceberg: what Apple didn’t say was that they may be releasing the first mass-market4 virtual reality camera. The same principles that make artificial bokeh possible also go into making imagery for virtual reality headsets. Of course you probably won’t be able to use the iPhone 7 Plus camera in this way — Apple hasn’t released a headset, for one — but when and if they do, the ecosystem will already have been primed, and you can bet FaceTime VR would be an iPhone seller.

Apple’s willingness and patience to lay the groundwork for new features over multiple generations remains one of its most impressive qualities. Apple Pay, for example, didn’t come until the iPhone 6, but the groundwork had already been laid by the introduction of Touch ID and the secure element in the iPhone 5S. Similarly, while Apple introduced Bluetooth beacons in 2013 and the Apple Watch in 2014, the company had actually been shipping the necessary hardware since 2011’s iPhone 4S.5 I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back at the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual cameras with similar appreciation.

The Headphone Jack

In one of the more tone-deaf moments in Apple keynote history, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller justified the aforementioned removal of the headphone jack this way:

The reason to move on — I’m going to give you three of them — but it really comes down to one word: courage. The courage to move on, do something new, that betters all of us, and our team has tremendous courage.

Schiller should have stuck to the three reasons: the superiority of Lightning (meh), the space gained by eliminating the headphone jack, and Apple’s vision for audio on mobile devices.

Start with the space: getting rid of the headphone jack fits with the multi-year feature creation I detailed above; current rumors are that next year’s 10th-anniversary iPhone will be nothing but a screen. Making such a phone, though, means two fundamental changes to the iPhone: first, the home button needs, well, a new home; last year’s introduction of 3D Touch and the iPhone 7’s force touch home button lay the groundwork for that. That headphone jack, though, is just as much of an impediment: try to find one phone or music player of modern thinness that has the headphone jack under the screen (the best example of the space issues I’m referring to: the 6th generation iPod nano).

Still, that’s speculation; Apple insists iPhone 7 users will see the benefits right away. Apple executives told BuzzFeed that removing the headphone jack made it possible to bring that image stabilization to the smaller iPhone 7, gave room for a bigger battery, and eliminated a trouble-spot when it came to making the iPhone 7 water-resistant. It’s a solid argument, albeit one not quite worth Schiller’s hubris.

That said, the third reason — Apple’s vision of the future — is such a big deal for Apple in particular that I just might be willing to give Schiller a pass.

AirPods and the Future

Jony Ive, in his usual pre-recorded video, introduced the AirPods like this:

We believe in a wireless future. A future where all of your devices intuitively connect. This belief drove the design of our new wireless AirPods. They have been made possible with the development of the new Apple-designed W1 chip. It is the first of its kind to produce intelligent, high efficiency playback while delivering a consistent and reliable connection…

The W1 chip enables intelligent connection to all of your Apple devices and allows you to instantly switch between whichever one you are using. And of course the new wireless AirPods deliver incredible sound. We’re just at the beginning of a truly wireless future we’ve been working towards for many years, where technology enables the seamless and automatic connection between you and your devices.

Putting aside the possibility of losing the AirPods — and the problem that not everyone’s ears can accommodate one shape6 — and it really looks like Apple is on to something compelling. By ladling a bit of “special sauce” on top of the Bluetooth protocol, Apple has made the painful process of pairing as simple as pushing a button. Even more impressive is that said pairing information immediately propagates to all of your Apple devices, from MacBooks to Watch. As someone who has long since moved to Bluetooth headphones almost exclusively7 I can absolutely vouch for Apple’s insistence that there is a better way than wires,8 and the innovations introduced by the AirPod (which are also coming to Beats) help the headphone jack medicine go down just a bit more easily.

What is most intriguing, though, is that “truly wireless future” Ive talked about. What happens if we presume that the same sort of advancement that led from Touch ID to Apple Pay will apply to the AirPods? Remember, one of the devices that pairs with AirPods is the Apple Watch, which received its own update, including GPS. The GPS addition was part of a heavy focus on health-and-fitness, but it is also another step down the road towards a Watch that has its own cellular connection, and when that future arrives the iPhone will quite suddenly shift from indispensable to optional. Simply strap on your Watch, put in your AirPods, and, thanks to Siri, you have everything you need.

Ah, but there is the catch: I have long held up this vision, of pure voice computing, as Apple’s Waterloo. I wrote about it when the the Watch came out:

I also think that when the Watch inevitably gains cellular functionality I will carry my iPhone far less than I do today. Indeed, just as the iPhone makes far more sense as a digital hub than the Mac, the Watch will one day be the best hub yet. Until, of course, physical devices disappear completely:

her-movie-poster

That is the ultimate Apple bear case.

The truly wireless future that Ive hinted at doesn’t just entail cutting the cord between your phone and your headphones, but eventually a future where phones may not even be necessary. Given that Apple’s user experience advantages are still the greatest when it comes to physically interacting with your device, and the weakest when it comes to service dependent interactions like Siri, that is a frightening prospect.

And that is why I ultimately forgive Schiller for his “courage” hubris. To Apple’s credit they are, with the creation of AirPods, laying the foundation for a world beyond the iPhone. It is a world where, thanks to their being a product — not services — company, Apple is at a disadvantage; however, it is also a world that Apple, thanks to said product expertise, especially when it comes to chips, is uniquely equipped to create. That the company is running towards it is both wise — the sooner they get there, the longer they have to iterate and improve and hold off competitors — and also, yes, courageous. The easy thing would be to fight to keep us in a world where phones are all that matters, even if, in the long run, that would only defer the end of Apple’s dominance.

  1. The story has since been updated to have the headline “What’s Really Missing From the New iPhone: Cutting-Edge Design” []
  2. Although an Android version will come at some point in the future []
  3. I will cover this news from Nintendo’s perspective in a future Daily Update []
  4. Sorry Lucid []
  5. That the Apple Watch required the iPhone 5 or later was likely a strategic decision to drive upgrades, although I don’t know for certain []
  6. ? []
  7. Beats PowerBeats around town, and the new Bose QC35 noise-cancelling headphones for trips []
  8. That said, the Beats in particular are terrible for music, but I mostly listen to podcasts []