Reactions to Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 7 suggest that we have reached a plateau in smartphone industrial design. After all, Apple, the king of silicon chic, finally didn’t deliver a package that wowed. In fact, Apple’s “courageous” euthanizing of the headphone jack seems to either perplex, annoy, or strike a funny bone.
I get the hullabaloo. We’re a hardware culture. We’ve spent most of the digital revolution treating our gadgets in part as fashion accessories. It’s not easy confronting the possibility that as currently configured, the smartphone has little room for meaningful design breakthroughs. We’re on a path to thinner chassis, crisper screens, sharper cameras, longer lasting batteries – everything a phone is today but more so. If this feels familiar to you, it’s because you have seen this movie before. Several years ago, laptop design stalled in many of the same ways.
Perhaps we need hardware staleness to remind us that the hardware long ago migrated from differentiator to table stakes. It has to look good, whatever that means, even to persuade a wireless consumer to take it for free upon renewing a service plan. What really matters, what has always mattered the most, is the software. We make these phones ours based on the unique collection of contacts, apps, website bookmarks, music, photos, and videos we stuff in there.
The promise of a major smartphone hardware innovation that always seems to lurk at some undefined point in the future? It’s a mirage, at least for now.
If we looked closely, we could see just how important software is, relative to hardware, even in Apple’s announcements last week. The big winner was Nintendo, which saw its stock price climb 26% on news that it would bring a version of its beloved “Mario” franchise to the iPhone.
That’s not to say that Apple’s software story is a bed of gold-plated, candy-coated rose petals. CEO Tim Cook takes swipes at Google and its collection and use of data, overlooking the fact that companies such as Google have established a symbiotic relationship with consumers and their data: the more consumers share, the more useful software Google and others offer in return. Apple just won’t go there. The result, as I wrote several weeks ago, is the company that invented the killer app hasn’t had one for a while.
Even if Apple wanted to shake up its software platform, the cost of doing that would be steep. There are lots of reasons why iOS 10 looks and behaves very similarly, relative to the very first instance of iOS back in 2007. Many iPhone customers are used to it, if not in love with it, of course. Just as importantly, though, thousands of developers have built entire companies on apps they’ve published for the iPhone. A radical change that would require them, say, to spend on average $10,000 upgrading all 2 million apps in the iOS App Store would be the equivalent of a $20 billion tax on the Apple ecosystem.
Hardware may be a mirage, but software is a trap. Much better to change incrementally, even if at times “incremental” is synonymous with “imperceptible.”
The result, at least in 2016, is that Apple has gotten itself stuck. The big leaps in hardware are in the past. It has no “must-have,” first-party apps of its own, and its platform is now in its 10th year without a major facelift because that sort change would force all sorts of costs on the world’s most valuable ecosystem.
I acknowledge that Apple is in this position because it has succeeded so wildly. The issue is that Apple now appears to be the winner of a race that ended a year or two ago, and it hasn’t figured out what new race it needs to enter next.
We’re not used to see Apple groping, but that’s kind of what it feels like these days.