Musing #41: iPhone X - The new generation 5C

Every "expert" worth his/her salt has formed an opinion on the iPhone X by now, so why should this armchair expert be left behind? You will have to go back only 4 years to the iPhone 5C (remember that?) to find an instance where Apple generated a lot of divided opinions over a new product. On the face of it, it would seem preposterous to compare the 5C to the X considering how the two were positioned and yet, strategically, it is not too different.

I would be upfront about the fact that it would be sad to see Apple succeed with the iPhone X. This is coming from an iPhone 7 user. In case you are wondering, I absolutely miss the headphone jack. The Lightning EarPods suffer from poor fit and low volume. The adapter is one ugly umbilical cord having the same volume issues. I hate having to charge (and pair) my Bluetooth headset. To add to the misery, there are no real (read, value for money) alternatives available as far as Lightning connector earphones are concerned. In short, I feel like a doofus in having spent a small fortune in affirming Apple's opinion about the headphone jack. At the same time, I absolutely love the solid-state Home "button" coupled with the Taptic engine and the stereo speakers. My major focus was on security and privacy which could have been served with any iOS device but it was certainly worth getting the iPhone 7 over the 6S.

So, why ought the X not succeed? Simply because it will set a new benchmark for the pricing of smartphones. The price certainly doesn't justify the features you are getting over the 7 or 8 or the Plus variants, but it would indicate the customer's willingness to accede to Apple's pricing experiment. Yes, the X is pretty much an experimental product in the same vein as the 5C. Why else would Apple need to accompany it with a "safe" incremental option? It is because Apple is unsure whether it is heading in to the right direction. It is no longer a Jobsian case of "customers don't know what they want" but rather a case of "Apple doesn't know what the customers want". The "new" iPad was a case of Apple bowing to the consumers and embracing the X will be subverting to that cause.

Pricing issues aside, the X doesn't really follow Apple's vision of simplification. It certainly does so from the hardware perspective but it is trying to make up for it using software, resulting in the most grotesque of usability issues. The 7 certainly was a step in the wrong direction but the X is in an altogether different league. The fingers continue to be the primary means of interaction with the iPhone and hence having Face ID precede that step doesn't make things any easier or faster. Apple made it a point to emphasize, using probability, that the face is far more unique than fingerprints. Yet, I can't help think of nefarious ways in which I could surreptitiously use an acquaintance's face to unlock the device. Identical twins and law enforcement would perhaps have it easier compared to Touch ID. Similarly, swiping up to unlock or stopping midway to access the app switcher or bringing down the control centre from the top right are convoluted mechanisms that are not Apple-esque. I can see Face ID being much more useful when the user interface completely shifts to gaze tracking, but right now it is an impediment. Apple has tried to compensate for it by utilising the TrueDepth camera for Animojis, AR and selfie portraits, but they are pure gimmicks to indulge the user who has already bought in to the X. Personally, I was impressed by Portrait Lighting but that isn't exclusive to the X, though it might do a better job with the f/2.4 aperture telephoto lens.

The irony is that the major appeal of the X can be attributed to Samsung's OLED display, apart from the notch for which Apple can claim full credit. One can only imagine that describing the features of the new display must have been killing Apple from the inside as against showering praise on the Apple-designed components. There is no denying that this is the first edition device of a larger strategic roadmap. In that sense, it bears semblance to the first iPhone. It is not meant to have the features that would logically make life easier for Face ID users. Instead, these "revolutionary" updates will "magically" appear at a later date in forthcoming iOS devices which, as per my gut feeling, won't go beyond X as far as nomenclature is concerned. After all, it seems that tech companies are obsessed by the 'X' factor, going by the erstwhile Mac OS X and the current Windows 10. Thus, in more ways than one, the X is the new avatar of the 5C, but I specifically hope for it to be closest to it in sales. The world at large will of course have other ideas and we may have to resign ourselves to the power of the masses, even if it leads down an abyss.

Musing #36: The Next Big Thing

I just started reading 'The One Device' the other day and have made it past the first couple of chapters wherein the book briefly touches over Apple's transition to innovation after its lost years. Of course, this is not the first time I have come across the story as the Steve Jobs' biography covers it in much greater detail. However, the underlying message to take away is that well-executed ideas can make a huge difference to the fortunes of a company, even though the innovation may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although the situation is far from similar, reading this phase of Apple's history makes me ponder over the flux the Indian IT industry finds itself in now. If anything, the requirement for innovation in the industry has been expedited. However, what comes around in the public domain sounds more like Orwellian Newspeak. The mention of AI, Automation, Cloud, Digital, Agile in the broadest of terms seems to have little more intention than to placate the shareholders. After all, shareholders in India seem to be a particularly emotional bunch going by the swings that take place after an obvious piece of news is shared by the media. This has necessitated the use of these terms along with others like Big Data, DevOps which have been in circulation for a pretty long time, enough for them to not be considered as part of a novel strategy. Yet, it forms the basis of optimism for a huge industry and its employees.

Ideas need execution to be successful. The basic tenet of the Indian IT industry has been cost arbitrage and providing services for cheap. Unfortunately, the same strategy seems to be permeating itself in the “new” fields. Hence, when the industry speaks of AI, it isn't referring to top of the line machine and deep learning. Instead it alludes to automation of basic operational tasks based on limited algorithmic branching. Even the innovation that does occur in this space is not happening here in India but through talent hired abroad with the usual instruction based implementation being passed on to cheaper coders in India. Similarly, the digital revolution through products and platforms is based on imitating the functionalities of well-established software at a fraction of the price. It is thus a case of simply picking the low hanging fruit.

Establishing any roadmap is based on industry trends and a fair bit of optimism. One certainly must move along with emerging technologies but the success of any buzzword isn't guaranteed. Case in point is that of Virtual Reality. Not until a few years ago, it was seen as the next big thing. Cost has always been attributed as a key factor in the uptake of VR. However, that isn't the case for something like Google Cardboard. It certainly offers a basic experience but at the same time illustrates the fallibility of VR. Beyond the initial novelty of the experience, it becomes very difficult to get people to come back again. One can only take so many rollercoaster rides, scenic walks and museum visits in isolation. Gaming and interactive story telling might be expected to alleviate this but VR has become part of a vicious circle wherein it has been unable to attain critical mass which has in turn kept content creators from investing too much in it. The VR industry is taking recourse by cutting hardware prices for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but unfortunately it seems destined to be niche. As has been the case in the past, mobiles will have to lead the way. However, it seems inevitable that AR experiences as those that will be provided by Apple's ARKit will be the mainstream option for once again it is just a case of incremental innovation.

This brings me back to the Apple and iPhone story. All the pieces of the puzzle were long in existence but none of them were put together in the manner which made the iPhone seem like magic. The next big thing might will not be a revolution but a simple evolution that seems like magic. Being ahead of time is as much as a failure as being late to the party. What one needs is a bridge between the present and the past such that people find the journey to the future much more exciting than the destination itself.