Sep 13, 2012

Apple’s new JesusPhone arrives — but it’s all about the software

The iPhone 5's technical specifications and the early reactions to same are signs the smartphone hardware market is maturing. Apple's fan base and tech media cheer squad are not.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

The iPhone 5's technical specifications and the early reactions to some are signs the smartphone hardware market is maturing, Apple's fan base and tech media cheer squad are not, and that the real action is now in software. Yes, Apple really did announce a device called iPhone 5 overnight Australian time. That new integer removed one cause of disappointment that accompanied the launch of the iPhone 4S last October. Yes, it's a whole new iPhone, not just a minor improvement. Says Apple. But is it, as Apple claims on its website, "The biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone"? Not really. Except in the boringly literal sense that it's got a bigger 4-inch screen compared with the iPhone's traditional 3.5-inch. Big enough to provide more to look at, but not so big that it wouldn't feel uncomfortable in the hand. Pretty much everything else is either a catch-up to other manufacturers' flagship devices (like 4G transceivers that actually work with Australian phone networks) or specs we expect (like the ability to play HD video, eight-megapixel camera and the usual array of sensors and navigation aids). Compared with its main rival, the Samsung Galaxy S III released at the end of May, the iPhone has a smaller screen, worse battery life with no ability to swap in a freshly charged spare, no microSD card slot for more memory, and yet another different non-standard Apple-only connector called Lightning that won't work with existing iPhone accessories without a $40 adaptor. Sure, it's an iPhone, so it'll presumably still have the magical power to hypnotise people into queuing outside Apple stores at midnight. The magical power to persuade journalists that people tweeting about untucked shirts is news. And to persuade readers that, yes, it is. But how long will this magic last when, as courts have started to decide, there's not that much difference between Samsung's shiny thing and Apple's? When Apple has now sold so many million iPhones that there's simply no cool-kid cachet any more? When Microsoft will offer a radically different and potentially more forward-looking interface? There was some criticism this morning that the iPhone didn't have near field communication (NFC), with its ability to participate in contactless payment systems. "The decision to not support NFC in the iPhone5 will create serious long-term problems for Visa and MasterCard," tweeted Brett King, founder of Movenbank, a smartphone-based cardless banking service that's not a bank. Perhaps. But if the iPhone 5 had included NFC today, how would Apple persuade people to buy an iPhone 6 next year, or the year after? By then the specifications of even mid-range smartphones will be grunty enough for most people. Apple could release limited-run signature editions, I suppose, like they did with the U2 iPod. The logical choice would be a Coldplay iPhone. Either that or Susan Boyle, right? The murmurs of disappointment on the internet were palpable this morning. But perhaps that's as it should be. The smartphone is just the platform, and the real innovation will now be the applications that take advantage of several billion humans having always-on mobile connectivity. The phone itself shouldn't be the focus of attention any more. Or, as my friend Snarky Platypus tweeted: "There are a lot of things that feel better in the hand than a bloody phone." So hands off the phone. *Disclosure: Stilgherrian is currently attending Microsoft's TechEd 2012 on the Gold Coast as its guest. Samsung has provided a review unit Galaxy S III. He also uses a MacBook Pro. Very ecumenical.

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26 thoughts on “Apple’s new JesusPhone arrives — but it’s all about the software

  1. W N

    “Apple’s fan base and tech media cheer squad are not, and that the real action is now in software”

    While your criticisms regarding the lack of “wow” for the new iPhone ring true, your endorsement of the Galaxy S III fails to mention the one core issue plaguing any Android device – software.

    We continue to see Samsung, HTC, Motorola and other various Android device manufacturers face continuous issues when it comes to rolling out software updates. Even up to last week, Motorola unveiled a range of new smartphones running the now superseded Ice Cream Sandwich, i.e Android 4.0, as opposed to running the more recent Jelly Bean.

    All of this before we even mention each telco adding their own bloatware to each device and prolonging the release of updates to their consumers. Even after this lengthy process, there is no guarantee your device will be supported at all, even after a mere twelve months.

    While Apple is certainly not messiah, it’s pattern of providing consistent updates for a majority of users (and certainly all within the two year time frame most of us have with our phone contracts) leaves it as an often better alternative to the issues plaguing Google and their Android system.

  2. NeoTheFatCat

    I think you’ve hit on the real issue about technology – it’s not what it looks like, but what it does for you. And that’s primarily built around the software.

    I have an iPhone 4 and will probably upgrade when the contract is due next year. But I assume that there are plenty of competing devices out there in Android world that will do the same sorts of thing, some better and some worse, than the iPhone. There are two key drivers for me:

    1. We’ve bought into the whole iDevice ecosystem in our family. It makes sense to be able to share accessories etc around.

    2. It works. I don’t drool over the minute details of the specs. My iPhone 3 was my first smartphone and the leap in capability from an old Nokia was simply amazing. But now the difference for me is really is in the quality of the OS and apps.

  3. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this piece and for posters’ informed comments. I’m still using the Nokia I bought reluctantly when the Australian Government turned off the analogue signal, so I’m starting to contemplate getting a smart phone in a year or 5. It is good to start briefing and acclimatising myself to choosing a third mobile.

  4. Will

    Speaking as a long time Android user and rom flasher, updates are certainly a relevant discussion point in terms of support dropping off and carriers lagging behind google OTA updates.

    But there’s a couple of point to make in relation to that. Carrier testing is important when you have different radio and hardware configuration, software, and, yes, bloatware. My experience is that at least for popular flagship phones and tablets, they are reasonably well supported by manufacturers like Samsung and HTC. For example, updates are coming for Jelly Bean — the 3G version of the S3 is due in October I believe.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that Jelly Bean is only official on the galaxy nexus line right now AFAIK. If October comes and goes we can start complaining about the lack of Jelly Bean.

    FYI – The Optus and Telstra 4G version of the S3 will be out on 20 Sep and 20 October respectively, with Jelly Bean out of the box. So it will be available.

    Finally it’s not like ICS is terrible. It’s perfectly competent mobile OS – especially when you compared to the limited and closed eco-system of iOS.

  5. Mike Smith

    @WN – my Samsung Nexus continues to receive software updates without much intervention – I just have to approve the install and restart. Over time its gone from ICS to Jellybean. So what’s your point?

    If Apple bring out a limited edition phone, might I suggest the “RickRoll” would be appropriate.

  6. floorer

    I use Apple gear an I’m happy. I don’t give the proverbial r*t’s ar*se what anybody else uses. What I’m fed up with is that everybody seems to care what I use. Everywhere I go to read up on the new iPhone is swamped with freakin trolls. Guardian to to Techcrunch. So are Android fans the new Christians?

  7. Stilgherrian

    The security advantages of Apple’s “walled garden” are something I’ve explored in the past, particularly in the “Patch Monday” podcast I do for ZDNet Australia.

    Most vendors of Android phones have been tardy with software updates or, in the case of HTC and others, simply not providing a security patch patchway for even the two years a device might still be on contract with a telco. It’s also more complicated because the updates have to be approved through three companies: Google for the core Android updates, the handset manufacturer for their variant, and then the telco for their stuff. That’s slow, and telcos aren’t yet used to the idea of being software vendors.

    Apple has its own problems, though. They’re still highly secretive about security matters, and won’t admit to a problem until after it’s fixed. That means that unfixed security problems could well exist — indeed, they doubtless do — and Apple’s users are kept in the dark. As I say in the linked-to article, I think that’s totally unacceptable.

  8. Mike Smith

    @Floorer, Apple Fans are the Christians, the iPhone is all about *believing* it is better.

  9. Stilgherrian

    I’ve always thought that platform zealotry, fandom as per its original meaning inm its derivation from from “fanatic” and the lack of rationality that implies, and defining yourself through the objects you buy all constitute a rather pathetic existence.

  10. Gavin Moodie

    It is true that defining oneself by the objects one buys is shallow, but it is pervasive: recall the rivalry between those who defined themselves as buyers of Ford or Holden cars.

    The choice of Mac and not Mac may run deeper. It’s been a while since I used a Mac, but I recall it to rely heavily on graphics and the mouse. In contrast personal computers rely more on text and the keyboard. I suspect that my preference for pcs stems in part from my preference for textual communication and my somewhat linear approach to tasks.

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