Apple shows off its newest iPhone. Photo: John Bradley/Wired
The iPhone 5 is the greatest phone in the world. It has top-notch hardware with a zippy new A6 processor and amazing four-inch display. Its new operating system, iOS 6, is slicker than slugs on ice. And its ultra-slim body, an all-glass and aluminum enclosure, is a triumph of industrial design. There is nothing not to like about the phone. It’s aces. Just aces.
And yet it is also so, so cruelly boring.
Yes, it’s better than the iPhone 4S or the iPhone 4 or just about any other phone you can buy. It’s faster with a bigger screen and an LTE antenna so you can suck up data from your carrier like Michael Phelps at a table full of pizza. But mostly it is the Toyota Prius of phone updates. It is an amazing triumph of technology that gets better and better, year after year, and yet somehow is every bit as exciting as a 25 mph drive through a sensible neighborhood at a reasonable time of day. It’s not going to change your life. It’s not even going to offer a radically different experience.
It’s a weird paradox. The iPhone 5 can simultaneously be the best phone on the market and really, really boring. And that has almost nothing to do with Apple and everything to do with our expectations.
The iPhone 4S on the left, and the new iPhone 5 on the right. Photo: John Bradley/Wired
Apple slapped us in the face with the original versions of the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air. Hell, even the iMac was mind-blowing when it came out in 1998. No cables to connect! You just plugged it in! And it was blue! BLUUUUUUUUUUEEE!
And for some time, there was a real sense that Apple was always going to blow our minds. When Steve Jobs premiered the iPhone in 2007, it was like tasting chocolate for the very first time. The iPad — enormous iPhone though it may have been — was another epic adventure. And within a few short years, Apple became the Simon Bolivar of technology companies, rolling out revolution after revolution after revolution, leaving the public sticking out our arms for more. Just. One. More. Thing. Please!
But the thing is, Apple never just casually moves on to the next thing. It doesn’t Sony-up and release new products for the sake of releasing them. Instead, it keeps its product line focused, and meticulously refines it year after year, making everything a little bit better. Which means by four or five generations in, especially when it comes to industrial design, Apple’s products tend to hit a sweet spot, where changing them isn’t going to improve them. It might even make them worse. (Hello, third-generation iPod shuffle.)
Without emergent inexpensive technologies to force or enable industrial design changes (think: the way cheap flash memory changed the iPod’s design or SSD made possible the MacBook Air) Apple has little reason to shake things up once it has a product really nailed down. With the iPhone, in its sixth iteration, things have gotten so good that Apple does not change very much anymore. And so you get the iPhone 5 — which basically looks like a longer, thinner version of the iPhone 4.
And, for that matter, it looks a lot like other phones from other manufacturers too.
To a large extent, Apple design fatigue can also be blamed on Apple’s competitors. Everyone copies Apple. MacBook Air knockoffs are so commonplace that they have become an entire product category in the ultrabook. I mean, Christ, have you seen the new HP Spectre One? It’s possible that you have but just didn’t realize it because it looks exactly like an iMac. And for that matter, basically every phone and tablet in Samsung’s lineup, and a whole heck of a lot of HTC models, bear a, er, striking resemblance.
And then there’s this: Maybe smartphones themselves are becoming boring. We’ve seen the future, and it’s glass and watches and augmented reality and all manner of other devices. The most purely exciting phone right now is the new Nokia Lumia 920 (in yellow!), both because it’s such a departure from the iPhone and (let’s be honest here) because Nokia is in disastrous trouble (next stop RIM-ville), and Windows Phone is its last best bet–other than going back to pulping paper and making tires.
But at least Nokia’s Windows Phone has a narrative and an identity. The iPhone no longer really has either, other than being the best.
Apple is going to shake things up again. It’s likely going to do something amazing in the home entertainment space. It would be great to see it getting into car dashboards or connected home devices–the Internet of iThings would probably be pretty rad.
But the iPhone? It’s boring. And it’s probably going to remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s not bad, it’s just the march of time and technology. Revolution becomes evolution. And that phone in your pocket–or more to the point, in the store window–becomes just a part of your life. It’s something you use, something you rely on. And then completely forget about. And in its own way, that’s actually kind of mind-blowing.