There’s a kind of magic about Apple events. It’s almost as if they are a chance for many of us to get in touch with our inner child and behave like a kid at Christmas. There’s much anticipation about what might be under the Apple tree. When we were kids, we’d feel the presents under the Christmas tree and see if we could work out what we might be getting based on the shape, size and sound of the object. Now analysts try to look at evidence from the supply chain, inventory, and other key indicators to see what goodies we’ll be getting.
But you can’t stay young and innocent for ever. Just as a Christmas comes around for all of us where we realise we’re growing up, and the magic isn’t quite what it used to be, so these events have lost a little bit of their magic. Perhaps it’s that the person who once so ably played Santa is dead. But it isn’t just that. There are two other contributing factors.
It’s much harder now for Apple to keep a lid on its plans. Social media and mobile technology mean that anyone working on a component is a global publisher with a scoop. In that climate, it’s impossible to maintain that “wow” factor.
Furthermore, the touch-screen-centric smartphone is now a mature product category. I don’t believe Apple is in trouble, that they’ve lost their way or any of the stuff we hear from those who always want to talk down a success story. It’s simply that the introduction of a completely new kind of product is an extremely rare event. Remarkably, Apple has achieved such a feat more than once, and perhaps it will do it again in the future. But the iPhone is still a great product in a product category that has now matured to the point that there’ll be incremental change, rather than revolutionary change.
Whether one is disappointed by Apple’s latest iPhone offerings will come down to a debate about the degree of incrementalism in each release of the product.
And so it was that I was awake at 5 AM New Zealand time for this year’s iPhone reveal. Despite having streamed some of its product-related events in the recent past, Apple chose not to offer a live stream of the event. I find this frustratingly inconsistent, and incomprehensible from the leading mobile technology company. Why set expectations that consumers can access a live stream for several consecutive events, then not provide one without any explanation to the public?
There were many journalists blogging and tweeting live from the event, so without access to a live stream, I fired up an insane number of tabs in my browser, and flicked through them while also consulting Twitter. Hopefully to save some of my Twitter followers the hassle of having to do likewise, I tried to live tweet the event. Thanks to everyone who said they found it helpful.
For the first time, Apple announced two new iPhones on the one day. Well, sort of. It is withdrawing the current iPhone 5 from sale, much as they did with the iPad 3 when the iPad 4 was released. You’ll still be able to get an 8 GB iPhone 4S, much like you can still get a 16 GB iPad 2. The iPhone 5 is being replaced with the iPhone 5c, which essentially is an iPhone 5 in a plastic case with a few tweaks, including a slightly better battery, a better front-facing camera, and more LTE support on the one device. Oh, and how could I forget all the new pretty colours?
The 5c isn’t the budget iPhone many analysts were expecting. Many predicted a lower price point and fewer features, perhaps taking Siri and a few other attractions out of the software. Instead, in the 5c you have a pretty competitive device on spec, although not, perhaps, competitive on price with cheaper Android options.
As has become customary, after a major revision of the form factor, Apple has refreshed its flagship phone with new insides but the same casing. And it is actually a significant change under the hood. While you’ll get people who just look at the device and see little difference, appearances can be deceptive. For the first time on a phone, we have a 64-bit processor with the new A7 chip in the 5s. Apple is promising that the speed of the 5s will be double that of the 5, and therefore, of the 5c.
There’s another new processor in the 5s as well- the M7 motion co-processor. It’s able to measure motion data continuously, as well as measure gyroscope, compass, and accelerometer data.
While the camera in the 5s boasts no higher resolution, its claimed the bigger pixels produce a better picture. There’s dual-LED two-tone flash, a redesigned lens that has a 15% wider active area, and a number of very cool changes to the software including choosing the best picture for you from a selection of shots.
The 5s also boasts touch ID. Train the device to recognise your fingerprint, touch the home button, and you can unlock your phone and even purchase apps, iBooks, and anything from the iTunes Store. If you trust others with your phone, it can learn their fingerprints too.
I mentioned earlier that there’ll be debate about whether the degree of incrementalism in the 5s is sufficient. For me, there are three disappointments that have me on the fence for now.
First, no 128 GB version of the 5s. I can see the potential of the 64-bit A7 processor for doing some very cool things, such as creating high-end audio streams from the phone with plenty of audio processing. But to do that well, you need a lot of room on the device to store music. It could be argued that with services like iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud, the need for greater storage has been reduced, because you have access to your music, TV shows and movies wherever you are. That’s true, and that configuration caters for many use cases, but it doesn’t cater for all. Even if you’re not thinking of broadcasting high quality audio using the fancy new processor, many blind people may want to store a lot of DAISY books or described movies on their device. The bottom line is that if Apple is going to lock down its devices so tightly, it needs to offer a wider range of storage configurations.
My second disappointment relates to the lack of NFC (Near Field Communications). I gave the iPhone 5 a miss last year because this wasn’t present, and its failure to appear again this year has me on the fence. NFC is not widely available in the US, so many users of devices there shrug their shoulders and think it isn’t important. The reality is that the US has never led the world in smartphone penetration or adoption. Asia, in particular, is where it’s at in that regard, reflected by how much attention Apple is now paying to this market. In Asia, and some parts of Europe, NFC is huge and very practical. In the city in which I live, we can already use it to pay for busses, car parks and more. A test project is now underway that can link your NFC-capable phone to a contactless credit card. Once the link is made, you can leave your credit card at home, because your phone is now your card. If you are required to carry a bunch of cards around with you, imagine how useful it would be as a blind person not to have to find clever ways to distinguish one card from another, because your NFC-capable phone is all your cards. Instead of having a swipe card to unlock a hotel room door, your NFC phone could do it.
Interestingly, the patent for the feature that is now released as Touch ID makes reference to NFC, and it may be that in future, Touch ID will provide a further useful layer of authentication for NFC. Apple will have to adopt NFC sooner or later, and when they do, it will be marketed as this wonderful game changing new feature. But it’s commonplace on Android, Blackberry and other devices already, and has been for some time now. NFC is the single biggest thing that keeps me looking at Android accessibility improvements, because I will not wait for Apple to fix this forever.
My final disappointment is the curious lack of 802.11AC Wi-Fi support in iPhone 5s. This is the latest Wi-Fi standard, boasting much faster throughput than 802.11N. It’s fairly new technology, but many of us who follow Apple closely were expecting it to appear on the 5S given that it is supported on the refresh of the Macbook Air and in Apple’s new routers. With multiple devices in a home environment using Airplay to multiple Apple TV boxes, and high-speed fibre-based Internet becoming more commonplace, it’s a curious omission. Apple normally jumps on a standard pretty consistently once it embraces something.
Having said that, I haven’t ruled out upgrading to the 5s. Currently, I still use a 4s. I owned a 4 for just over a year, but couldn’t wait to go out and upgrade to the 4s because of Siri. I’ve never regretted doing that. I felt that the performance and feature benefits of the 5 didn’t warrant spending money on an upgrade, although had I still owned the 4, I would have jumped at the chance. The thing is, as a blind person, I really like the small screen on the 4s. I like a device that’s as small as possible while being functional. Some blind people have said they appreciate the extra row of icons on the 5, but now with iOS 7 supporting multiple pages for every folder, that’s less of a factor. The 4S is still a pretty good phone.
So why am I still thinking about making a change? First, I think the performance improvement between a 4s and a 5s is going to be really noticeable. A little bit of sluggishness is creeping into the 4S, particularly if you choose to use VoiceOver’s premium voices. I also wonder if the 64-bit processor may mean that eventually, we’ll get a wider choice of voices available to us, including Alex.
While we’re on the subject of processors, I’m really intrigued about the practical implications and applications of the M7 co-processor. Take a look at this from Apple’s website.
M7 knows when you’re walking, running, or even driving. For example, Maps switches from driving to walking turn-by-turn navigation if, say, you park and continue on foot. Since M7 can tell when you’re in a moving vehicle, iPhone 5s won’t ask you to join Wi-Fi networks you pass by. And if your phone hasn’t moved for a while, like when you’re asleep, M7 reduces network pinging to spare your battery.
That’s all cool in itself, but there could be some very interesting applications that are blindness-specific as a result of the M7.
Second, I really like the sound of Touch ID. In the past, I have had commercially sensitive data on my phone, so I’ve always set my password to be required every time I unlock it. It’s more than 4 characters long, so entering it takes time. It’s a price I’m happy to pay for security, but if I can be secure and not have to pay that price, then that’s absolutely brilliant, and a useful feature.
Third, it remains to be seen, but it sounds like the camera changes could be of real benefit to those of us who use blindness-related recognition apps such as TapTapSee, VizWiz, CamFind and Digit-eyes. The wider lens should make it easier for people who find it hard to line something up in the view of the camera. But what really interests me is this sentence from Apple’s website.
Auto image stabilization kicks in when you need it to help reduce noise and motion from shaky hands or moving subjects.
While not a universal problem for blind people by any means, maintaining the view while you take the picture is a pretty common problem for blind people who are getting used to the camera, so this is a feature with a lot of potential benefit.
In the end, whether I buy a 5s or not will be determined by the extent to which I want the new features, versus a gamble about how much I might be sacrificing, given that if I buy this one, I’m unlikely to buy the iPhone 6. Will the 6 have NFC? Will it have the 128 GB option? No one knows, or at least, no one who’ll say anything. And that’s the risk you take with any technology purchase.
I don’t think Apple’s event was a flop by any means. I can see a number of benefits for me as a general user of smartphone technology, and also as a blind person. I just don’t know if they’ve done enough to get more of my cash in a tough economic climate.
Will you buy the 5s, and if so, what are you upgrading from? Let us know in the comments.