Thoughts and Observations Regarding Yesterday’s iPhone 5 and Music Event

A Double Feature

There’s been a consistent formula to the post-Steve Jobs Apple keynote events. Tim Cook opens, and speaks in broad terms about where Apple is. Numbers and milestones. Then he hands things over to Phil Schiller to do the actual product introduction. Schiller in turn brings out domain specialists to speak in detail about specific aspects of the announcement (e.g. Scott Forstall to talk about iOS). Then Cook returns to close things out with a heartfelt coda regarding the company’s ideals and goals. Thanks for coming, check out the hands-on demo area, last one out turn off the lights.

When the rumors became rampant that Apple was poised to announce new iPods alongside the iPhone 5 this week, I couldn’t see how they’d structure such an event. I wrote last month that I couldn’t see the iPhone 5 sharing the stage with the presumed iPad Air; the same logic held for sharing the stage with new iPods.

In a sense, I was right. Yesterday’s event didn’t play like one two-hour event. It played like two one-hour events, back-to-back. First the iPhone 5 intro, with Schiller and Forstall talking about the hardware and software. Then Cook returned and it almost felt like he could have wrapped things up and sent us home. But no, he instead started a new, second event: an old-school Apple music event. Greg Joswiak took the Schiller spot for the hardware; Eddy Cue took the Forstall spot for media content and software. Then Cook returned to close things out with his sincere (and true) boast that “only Apple” could do the things we’ve just seen. And then, holy shit, The Foo Fighters.

And what shows they were. When Schiller unveiled the iPhone 5, it rose from the stage floor on a smoothly-rising and rotating pedestal, pinpoint spotlights hitting the phone and only the phone. The rotation of the iPhone atop the pedestal was in perfect sync with the rotation of the iPhone projected on the big screen at the back of the stage. There’s no store where you buy such pedestals; Apple designed and engineered it specifically for this event. It was on stage for about a minute.

Likewise, when Cook introduced the show-closing Foo Fighters, the screen rose and from behind the screen slid the band, on a raised dais that smoothly rolled to the front of the stage. Such stagecraft is one of the rewards Apple can reap from its $100 billion (and growing) war chest.

I’m not sure where this leaves the early October event I still expect Apple to hold for the iPad Air. Maybe that’ll be a lower-expectation on-campus Town Hall thing, not a Yerba Buena theater thing? What I’d heard a few weeks ago was that the October one would be the “music” event for iPods. Clearly, that plan was scrapped, if indeed it was ever in play.

My best guess for October: an education theme. A smaller (and less expensive) iPad seems like an obvious fit for schools and as a holiday gift for kids. We know from last January’s iBooks event in New York that Apple considers education a high priority, and the iPad is at the center of it. Plus, it would nicely fit with new Macintosh hardware — say, a 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and a refreshed lineup of iMacs (but not yet retina, I’m almost certain — affordable 27-inch retina displays remain beyond even Apple’s ken today). Roll in some news from textbook publishers, education-focused app developers, and of course, some iPad games, and Apple would have a solid event.

The iPhone 5

Here’s the thing: it’s really light. As in, I-feel-almost-legally-obligated-to-not-merely-include-but-to-italicize-the-really-intensifier-in-the-preceding-sentence light. Almost weirdly light, to my oh-so-utterly-accustomed-to-the-heft-of-the-iPhone-4(S) hands. But it also feels solid, and the metal unibody just feels right. I’ve missed the metal back of the original iPhone ever since I upgraded to the 3G in 2008, and it’s good to have it back. My instant gut feeling is that the iPhone will remain metal-backed for the foreseeable future. The plastic of the 3G/3GS was, I’m certain, a tradeoff for engineering and perhaps cost purposes that no one at Apple was ever satisfied by. The glass of the 4/4S feels great, but it’s fragile and, compared to aluminum, heavy. The 5 looks taller but feels smaller in hand, because of how much thinner it is than the 4/4S.

The only other thing I feel safe judging from my few minutes of noodling in the hands-on area is the display. The integration of the touch sensors into the display itself provides a noticeable reduction in thickness. I wrote when I first saw the iPhone 4 in 2010 — Apple’s first retina display and the first time the company laminated the display to the glass surface, eliminating the thin layer of air between those components — that it looked like pixels on glass rather than pixels under glass. Now, after seeing the new iPhone 5 display, my iPhone 4S display seems as thick as a Coke bottle.

I can’t verify the 44 percent increase in color saturation proclaimed by Apple, but my eyes said yes — blacks look blacker and colors look more saturated.

The New iPod Touch

The iPhone turned five years old this year, and so too did the iPod Touch. But the iPhone without the phone has always lagged behind its sibling — both in terms of timing and in terms of technology. Yesterday was the first time a new iPod Touch was announced alongside a new iPhone.

The previous iPod Touch (fourth generation) sported a display the same resolution as the iPhone 4/4S, but it was not the same display. The iPod Touch’s retina display was lesser — less saturated, less vibrant. So too was it in the pre-retina era. Not anymore. I double-checked with Apple after the event and what Joswiak said on stage is the truth — the new Touch sports the exact same display as the iPhone 5. That’s killer. The Touch still lags in certain technical regards — primarily that it uses the year-old A5 rather than new A6 system-on-a-chip. But this is without question the closest the iPod Touch has ever gotten to the iPhone in terms of quality, design, and craftsmanship. I spent more time playing with it in the hands-on area than I did the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 is “Wow, this is light!” light compared to the iPhone 4; the new iPod Touch is “Wow, this is light!” light compared to the iPhone 5. It almost feels phony, like it’s just the casing without any internal components.

I was never a big fan of the old iPod Touch hardware. It always looked like an awkward mishmash of the front face of the iPhone and the fingerprint-magnet shiny metal backing of the classic early 2000’s click wheel iPods. Not anymore. I’m not sure about the white front bezel on the color models, but the black and silver models are simply magnificent (and I’m not sure what else they could have done with the front face on the color ones).1

It speaks to Apple’s confidence in the iPhone 5 that despite its thinness and lightness being primary among its attributes, they announced it alongside a sibling that is remarkably thinner and lighter than the iPhone 5. The new iPhone 5 is only a smidge thicker and heavier than the old iPod Touch (iPhone 5: 7.6 mm/112 grams; old iPod Touch: 7.2 mm / 102 grams). Now, the new iPod Touch has me pondering a 2014 iPhone that’s only a smidge thicker and heavier than this (6.6 mm/88 grams). It has never been more true that Apple is obsessed with making its products ever lighter and thinner over time.2

The Other iPods

In person, they feel and work exactly how you’d expect.

It is interesting to contrast the evolution of the iPod Nano with that of the iPhone. The iPhone — much to the consternation of the easily-bored tech press but to the delight of hundreds of millions of customers — has remained true to its original design for five years. That’s a product where Apple knew they got it right, and they’ve simply but relentlessly refined that original idea for five years. The iPod Nano, though, has gone back to the drawing board several times. Remember the Fat Nano? Then they went square and Shuffle-sized, and now they’re back to a widescreen display. First it only played audio, then it played video, then video went away, and now it’s back. I can’t recall any other successful product where Apple has experimented so variedly year after year. And with no leaks, it’s the product Apple has surprised us with the most consistently.

Speaking of leaks, I do wonder why the iPhone 5’s casing leaked so profusely but the iPods’ did not. I suspect the answer is two-fold. First, the iPhone is the single most successful product in the world and is the subject of a disproportionate — dare I say unprecedented — degree of speculation. If any of the new iPod designs had leaked in advance, it surely would have garnered a lot of attention, but nothing like the iPhone. Second, because the iPhone 5 will sell in greater quantities and is going to be available first, it is further along in production in the supply chain. Apple has to begin large-scale production of a new iPhone today so far in advance that I suspect we’ll never again see a surprise iPhone design unveiled on stage.

Playing with the new Nano, it’s almost shocking how much it not only looks but feels like iOS. I love the addition of a home button. I own and regularly use the previous generation square Nano, but I’m constantly thrown by its entirely gesture-based UI. Swiping to go to the home screen still feels wrong to me, even after using the thing for over a year. That feels-wrongedness of the old Nano is exactly why I don’t think Apple will ever eliminate the iOS home button. It’s a nice touch that the Nano home button’s icon is a circle, matching the shape of the Nano’s “app” icons the same way the iOS home button’s round-cornered square matches the outline of iOS app icons.

I can see Apple someday releasing a Nano like this one that does run iOS. Not running shrunken iPhone apps but as a new target for developers.

One unfortunate casualty of the bigger back-to-widescreen Nano design: the Nano-as-wristwatch strap market.

EarPods

Apple has grown so large and successful that it regularly drops some big numbers during these events. But 600 million sets of earphones is a big number even by Apple’s standards. Apple handed out sets of the new EarPods like candy to the press as we filed out of the theater yesterday. I’m no audiophile, but at $29, these clearly aren’t intended to be audiophile-quality earphones. After a day of use, my impression is that they’re exactly what Apple claims they are: better-sounding and more comfortable than the old ones.

Lightning

Last but not least, and speaking of $29 add-ons, we have the new Lightning port. My first thought: it’s about fucking time. The old 30-pin adapter was ugly and cumbersome, and always struck me as one of the most un-Apple-like designs in the company’s history. Its design served several practical purposes — but those purposes only made sense a decade ago. Compatibility with both FireWire (for Macs) and USB (for PCs). The fact that it was designed primarily as a dock connector for heavy hard-drive-based iPods, not a cable connector. It used to lock into place. Remember that? Back then we (and Apple) expected users to charge and sync their iPods by placing them on docks, but it wound up we largely preferred just using cables. The old 30-pin adapter’s usefulness peaked years ago.

What does Apple do when it deems a technology past its expiration date? They abandon it. What do tech writers do when Apple abandons these outdated but ubiquitous technologies? They pitch fits. Happened with the floppy drive. Happened when the original iMac went USB-only. Happened with optical drives. Happens every few years with display adapters.

And so now we have Andrew Leonard at Salon, saying the switch to the Lightning adapter is an “enormous insult” to users:

I don’t know which is worse — the application of the word “ungainly” to an Apple product, or the fact that Apple doesn’t appear to realize that the median family household income in the U.S. declined again in 2011. Apple’s move is an insult on at least two levels: In these tough times, we can’t afford to add adapters to all our existing Apple chargers and related devices. Perhaps even more disappointingly, who among us isn’t affronted by the thought of an ugly adapter clashing with Apple’s sublime design aesthetic?

To be clear, Leonard is arguing that the $29 Lightning-to-30-pin dongle is “ungainly”, not the Lightning port itself. That’s because the Lightning port and plug are adorable. They’re utterly Apple-like in all the ways the 30-pin one is not: thin and narrow versus fat and wide; round versus sharp; and best of all, agnostic regarding which side is up and which is down.

As for Apple’s understanding of the economy and the amount of money Americans are willing to spend on Apple products, I think they understand that pretty well. One thing to keep in mind is that many, if not most iPhone 5 buyers may not need a single one of those $29 dongles, and I suspect there are very few people who need more than one.

The dongle is necessary, but only as a stopgap. Within a few years, all our plugs will be Lightning instead of 30-pin, and the world will be an ever-so-slightly more elegant place for it. What’s the alternative? 30-pin forever?

Farhad Manjoo is downright petulant regarding the matter, arguing — and I’m not making this up — that the switch to the Lightning adapter single-handedly prevents the iPhone 5 from being the best iPhone Apple has ever made:

Apple has a long history of killing technologies that it deems obsolete. […]

But I don’t think that defense applies with the dock. In this case, Apple is just moving from one closed, proprietary standard to another, causing endless hassles and minimal benefits for users. If Apple really believed that the old dock was too big for its newer devices, it should have replaced them, once and for all, with the tech industry’s standard way to connect stuff: USB. That connection system comes in various sizes, including one (micro-USB) that is found on almost every non-Apple phone in the world.

It’s true that USB isn’t reversible — you can only plug it in one way. Other than that, though, it would have worked just as well as Apple’s new dock, with the added benefit of being universal.

So Manjoo acknowledges that micro-USB would have been less elegant and would have cost Apple the control it currently wields over the iPod/iPhone/iPad peripheral market through the use of a proprietary port, and thinks Apple chose wrongly? Apple’s choices came down to:

  • Stick with the existing 30-pin port, despite it being old, ugly, and so thick that it had become the limiting factor for how thin and small devices could be.

  • Switch to an industry standard that, though small, was not as elegant or well-designed as what Apple could do on its own, and would cost Apple its control over the peripheral market. (And we’d still need dongles for existing 30-pin peripherals.)

  • Invent something new and proprietary that looks and works exactly how Apple wants it to.

If you think Apple spent much time pondering anything but the third option, you don’t understand Apple.


  1. Is anyone going to buy the yellow one? I don’t see the appeal of that one at all. 

  2. Which leads to the obvious conclusion that the thicker and heavier iPad 3 design is not long for this world. 

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