By David McNamara
On September 12, Apple hosted an event to announce its latest smartphone amid much feverish anticipation on the part of tech journalists and consumers. Leading up to the event were the expected rumors circulating the internet about what the new phone would be called and what new capabilities it would have. At the event, Apple stuck with its established naming convention and titled the new phone the iPhone 5. Even though the physical store launch was September 21, pre-orders for the iPhone 5 quickly exceeded a record-breaking two million units in one day.
The phone features a number of specification upgrades and evolutionary enhancements over its predecessors. It offers a 4-inch (diagonal) screen, a 0.5 inch increase over the 3.5 inch (diagonal) screen of the iPhone 4S. In addition, the screen’s touch layer is fused directly with the LCD panel decreasing total thickness of the phone to a petite 0.299 inch. The new processor in the iPhone 5 is the custom-designed A6 chip which improves battery life while maintaining quick speeds especially for interacting with websites. Another much-awaited improvement is an antenna and chipset upgrade to support 4G and LTE speed mobile services. Furthermore, the iPhone 5 switched its proprietary dock connector from the ten-year old 30 pin connector to a reversible, all-digital connector called “Lightning”.
With its array of features, the iPhone 5 is clearly reengineered to be a capable, excellent smartphone. Yet this generation of iPhone is a collection of conservative upgrades and is arguably underwhelming compared with some of its competitors’ products. This recent ad from competing smartphone manufacturer Samsung pounces on this fact, poking fun at early-adopter consumers waiting in line for the iPhone 5.
One of the most significant absences from the iPhone 5 specifications is the lack of NFC (Near-Field Communication) support. This technology, already present in a number of other smartphone models, initializes a symmetric radio connection at close range with other devices. Applications of this proximity technology include mobile payment for purchases through simply tapping one’s phone to a receiver (akin to Visa’s PayWave technology), communication with other devices to easily share files by tapping the devices together, and even interaction with smart tags that have embedded data to perform a number of automated tasks, like loading a website in lieu of QR codes, setting the phone to car mode, or seamlessly setting up Wi-Fi access while the user is at a coffee shop.
The lack of NFC in the iPhone 5 is disappointing to consumers and businesses hoping for a tipping-point in the adoption of mobile payment features. Instead of offering NFC on the iPhone 5, Apple is promoting the Passbook feature of iOS 6, Apple’s new mobile operating system designed especially for the new iPhone. Passbook is a fresh-baked product from Apple that is designed to serve as a digital wallet similar to Google Wallet. It allows the user to organize paperless tickets, coupons, loyalty cards, boarding passes, as well as even make digital payments to supporting vendors. Passbook has the potential to be a useful idea and a software competitor to technologies like NFC, but it also has kinks. Redeeming electronic promotion offers, instead of doing something intuitive like just entering in a reward code, requires the user to undertake a number of steps like clicking through to the all-encompassing App Store to download or update the particular vendor’s app.
Many are questioning why is Apple is putting its weight behind its untried Passbook software solution instead of NFC hardware implementations. The obvious motivations would be the cost of additional hardware, and reduced battery life. However, Apple is more forward-thinking that just maintaining profit margins, and device performance specifications.
In July, Apple’s patent application for iTravel was approved by the U.S Patent Office. iTravel is believed to be part of the long-term strategy for Passbook, or perhaps a future “iWallet”. The patent for iTravel references NFC support that would allow a user to check-in for travel and provide electronic identification even through biometric means.
As the dominant player in the smartphone market, Apple can rely on its sales momentum and brand exclusiveness to carry sales of its devices without having to take costly gambles on revolutionary R&D breakthroughs. By waiting to include features such as NFC, Apple can spend its resources refining the user experience of enhanced mobile interactive systems like Passbook, At the same time, it fragments the competition for manufacturers offering NFC-enabled phones. Without the widespread capability for NFC technologies that would exist if the iPhone supported it, Apple’s competitors must devote their own additional resources to slowly create the awareness and need for these technologies. In the meantime, Apple is free to wait until it feels like NFC technology is a worthy investment, at which point, it can conveniently join the fray.
Apple’s strategy towards perfection and perfect-timing align with its focus on selling experience not specifications. By engaging customers and building intangible connections with them, Apple’s continued sales are tied to positivities such excitement, wonder, and simplicity, instead of boring, lifeless features. The iPhone 5 can be a integral part of its users’ life, something that works so seamlessly that they can just take it for granted. The iPhone 5 may not be a flawless, cutting-edge masterpiece, but sentimentalism sells more than inaccessible, serious design.
Many designers criticize Apple’s continued use of skeuomorphism in its products, including Apple designers. Skeuomorphism is basically using old physical metaphors to represent software innovations, like having the fake wood bookshelf background in the iBooks app. But this seemingly-archaic approach allows Apple to guide its users, bridging the gap between what actions are intuitive to them, and what new paradigms they must learn. With this friendly, familiar approach, the iPhone 5 continues to function like a furry pet who is always happy to see its owner; a pet that’s loveable, even though it’s not the smartest pet around. Owners can easily overlook imperfections and lacking features of the iPhone 5, since what the iPhone 5 does, it does (mostly) well.