Five

Tech Life

As with anything that has to do with a new Apple product, the debate is an ongoing flow of opinions before, during and after the introduction of said product. In the case of the iPhone, every time a new model is introduced, the Internet has shown it can go absolutely crazy, with the most varied range of reactions, from the utterly silly and gratuitous babble, to the smartest, thought-provoking insights. The quantity of posts commenting the new iPhone 5 is simply impossible to follow.

I wanted to take a couple of quiet hours of my time to enjoy the video of Apple’s September 12 music event before writing anything about it because I didn’t want to feel tempted to just comment on other people’s reactions or commentaries. After watching the whole thing, I admit it was a bit difficult to come up with a cohesive piece, so I thought I’d keep this simple — but alas, not short — and share five observations.

1. The leaks

This I have to say to the many rumour sites out there: Great fucking job you’ve done, I hope you’re all pleased with yourselves. A lot of the effect of a new Apple product’s introduction relies on the surprise element. But when you already know practically everything that there is to know, the wow factor gets irreparably dampened. At the time of the iPhone 4 launch, thanks to the whole lost/stolen prototype affair, the new case design was known, but little more than that: the internal changes and new features revealed during the Apple event (above all, the Retina display) were surprising enough to make me enjoy the unveiling of the new iPhone. This time the leaks have been so egregious that everything of the iPhone 5 — outside and inside — was already predicted or outright revealed: the bigger screen, the bigger battery, the new processor, the improved camera, the support for LTE, and so on.

I usually try to avoid rumour sites and articles, but these last two months the ‘sensational scoops’ have been posted everywhere and so aggressively that even skimming through my RSS feeds with Flipboard was enough to spot leaked photos of the iPhone 5 case, and even a video in which you could see the new EarPods.

Personally, there’s nothing I find disappointing about the new iPhone 5. What is disappointing is this increasingly maddening ‘leak culture’, enabled by people who just can’t wait a few weeks to see how a damned smartphone will look like, so that they’re happy to give thousands of pageviews to stupid rumour sites.

2. The small things

When innovation is on the ‘micro’ scale, sometimes it gets overlooked or underrated. I won’t certainly describe the iPhone 5 as being a ‘revolutionary’ device, but it is undoubtedly on a great evolutionary path. (See also this smart post by Chris Breen on Macworld). You must understand that the iPhone is too important for Apple to radically change its looks at every new model generation. It is a delicate balance: on one hand, changes have to be significant enough to make an upgrade worthwhile; on the other hand, the iPhone’s general design has quickly become a classic, and deviating from it dramatically (and somewhat capriciously) would be too risky and ultimately an unwise decision. With the iPhone 5, therefore, what’s significant is a series of small changes and improvements which taken individually may not seem remarkable, but together have a cumulative force.

Really, the best description of this process is on the iPhone design page at Apple’s site:

iPhone 5 is just 7.6 millimeters thin. To make that happen, Apple engineers had to think small, component by component. They created a nano-SIM card, which is 44 percent smaller than a micro-SIM. They also developed a unique cellular solution for iPhone 5. The conventional approach to building LTE into a world phone uses two chips — one for voice, one for data. On iPhone 5, both are on a single chip. The intelligent, reversible Lightning connector is 80 percent smaller than the 30-pin connector. The 8MP iSight camera has even more features — like panorama and dynamic low-light mode — yet it’s 20 percent smaller. And the new A6 chip is up to 2x faster than the A5 chip but 22 percent smaller. Even with so much inside, iPhone 5 is 20 percent lighter and 18 percent thinner than iPhone 4S.

In a nutshell, almost every major component in the iPhone 5 is smaller than before (except of course for the battery, which is bigger) and at the same time more powerful. The result is a device that yes, is taller than the previous models, but also thinner and lighter. And more powerful. And with a longer battery life. This is not marketing speak, but a series of facts anyone can verify.

Speaking of personal preferences regarding other small things, I like how now the black model is effectively blacker than before (love that ‘Black & Slate’ combination) and the white model is… less white than before. I never liked all that whiteness in the white iPhone 4/4S, in my opinion it made the device look cheaper and more kitsch than the black model. The new White & Silver combination is, to my eyes, much more elegant.

Another feature I like — which probably didn’t attract much attention during the Apple event — is the three microphones and the fact that now noise-cancelling works both ways, for outgoing and also incoming calls, which should be great when people call you from a place with a noisy, busy background.

Yet another welcome addition are the EarPods, the new Apple earphones. I haven’t tried them yet, but considering the terrible sound quality the previous earphones delivered, these will surely be an improvement. I still don’t understand Apple’s insistence on a single white model. It would have been quite nice to have black EarPods to match the black iPhone 5.

3. The disappointment

People have grown increasingly demanding towards Apple. I really don’t know what on earth they expected from the new iPhone. That after all those leaked images Apple would have shocked everyone by presenting a different iPhone, completely redesigned overnight? After reading a bunch of reactions from pundits, commenters on tech news sites and the like, it seems that people wanted a revolutionary new design but, er, not too much revolutionary because, you know, the iPhone is the iPhone in the end and… Oh well, I give up.

Others have found the iPhone 5 disappointing because it doesn’t include features like Near Field Communication (NFC) and wireless charging. I don’t know enough of the former to express an informed opinion, but my guess is that Apple simply deemed the technology not mature enough (or not widespread enough) to be useful for iPhone users at this time. As for the second, since I also own a Palm Pre 2 and its wireless Touchstone charger, let me tell you: wireless charging may be a cool feature to show off to your friends, but it’s not worth the hardware changes that have to be implemented in order to make it work correctly and reliably. (Lots of Palm Pre owners had to have their Touchstone replaced — sometimes more than once — before finding one that worked well). Keep in mind that yes, the phone is not connected to the charger through a wire, but you always have to connect the charger to a wall socket to charge the phone. There’s very little convenience to be gained here.

But the real silly bit must be the quantity of virtual ink that has been poured about the infamous new Lightning connector, replacing the 9-year old 30-pin dock connector. Some says that if Apple wanted/needed a smaller connector, it should have opted for the more standard micro-USB solution. In his blog, the excellent Rainer Brockerhoff explains why Apple didn’t do that, and why the Lightning connector (albeit proprietary) is a better choice:

People keep asking why Apple didn’t opt for the micro-USB connector. The answer is simple: that connector isn’t smart enough. It has only 5 pins: +5V, Ground, 2 digital data pins, and a sense pin, so most of the dock connector functions wouldn’t work – only charging and syncing would. Also, the pins are so small that no current plug/connector manufacturer allows the 2A needed for iPad charging. Note that this refers to individual pins; I’ve been told that several devices manage to get around this by some trick or other, but I couldn’t find any standard for doing so.

Of course, to maintain a bit of retrocompatibility with all the third-party accessories users have been purchasing over the years for their iPods and iPhones, Apple had to introduce a Lightning to 30-pin Adapter. Of course, said adapter is sold separately for $29. Of course, people have written the stupidest arguments about it. My opinion on the matter? It’s exactly like Cole Peters’, so go read his great piece: The Spoor of High Horses. (I so agree with him when he says “It’s not that people aren’t allowed to dislike an Apple product, or features of it […] but rather what astonishes me is the lengths these people are willing to go to in their searching out of negative aspects. Minor details are blown into overwhelming claims of failure, all in the name of getting some time in the spotlight or simply to take part in the hate-on-Apple game.” — but please read the whole article, it’s worth your time).

4. The new iTunes

I am a renowned iTunes hater. It’s possibly the single most irritating software ever produced by Apple, and the only time I liked it was when it was just a music player and nothing more. It was simple, it worked just fine. Then, the downward spiral until it became a multimedia behemoth, slow and progressively less user-friendly.

The new, completely redesigned iTunes is a huge step forward, in my opinion. The new interface borrows heavily from iOS, but in this case it is really a big improvement. From what I’ve seen in the video of the Apple event, the new iTunes gets everything right as regards to user interface and interaction. It feels lighter while retaining all its (numerous) features. Navigation is easier and better thought-out. It is also graphically more elegant and essential. The ‘Up Next’ feature is useful and interesting. And even though I basically never used iTunes minimised, I really love what they did with the Mini-player: it appears more functional and versatile than before, and I may be inclined to use it more now.

The various Apple online stores (iTunes Store, App Store, iBookstore) have also been redesigned, and it’s definitely a welcome change. The App Store in particular needed this, because we had come to a point where its user interface simply couldn’t keep up with the exponential increase in the number of apps to choose from. Search and navigation were indeed suffering. The new design appears to be a more functional change. I can’t wait to try it.

5. The increasing polarisation

A few days ago, here’s what I said in two consecutive tweets: It is increasingly difficult to talk about technology without being labelled. Either one is an “Apple fan” or an “Apple hater”. It’s not black or white! Also, it’s ludicrous that, to appear ‘objective’, one has to belittle Apple or its products, lest one lose credibility.

Up until three years ago, I was all for ‘fighting the good fight’, trying to clarify my position, to explain how I form my views and opinions by reading a lot and checking the facts before writing an article or replying to a mailing list/forum discussion. I also used to explain that I’m not a new Apple user (or fanboy), that I’ve been using Macs since 1989, that my decision to go Mac-only from circa 1993 on was not based on a whim, but after using other platforms and opting for the one which gave me the best user experience, the best hardware/software quality, and that ultimately worked best for me. This doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the work of other manufacturers. I love webOS, for example, and my second phone is now a Palm Pre 2. I really like what Microsoft has been doing with the Windows Phone OS and Windows 8, and so on. However, in recent times I’ve grown really tired of explaining where I come from. Those who stumble on this website can very well do their part to try to figure out who is the person writing this stuff, where he comes from, what his level of experience is.

This increasing polarisation when it comes to Apple hurts any intelligent debate. People have to understand that if someone appreciates the new iPhone 5 and is not disappointed at all by what Apple decided to include and omit, it doesn’t mean he or she has to be an Apple fanboy. This ‘us versus them’, ‘everything’s black or white’ mentality is just plain stupid, shallow and childish. And I don’t find this mentality in comment threads only. It’s also in blog posts, tech articles and pieces written by people who don’t bother to do a modicum of fact-checking before writing something that either over-celebrates or (more often) bashes Apple’s work, conduct or products.

I’m not a tech journalist, my site is not a tech news site, and I don’t feel compelled to impart my opinions on everything tech-related. As a long-time Apple user myself, it’s obvious that I often talk about Apple here. But I’ve always tried to be as objective as possible in my assessments, simply because I feel responsible towards my few readers. I’m not an Apple fan or an Apple hater. I don’t agree with every decision Apple has made in the last 20 years, I don’t love each and every piece of hardware or software Apple has introduced. At the same time I still have to see a product from an Apple competitor that has truly blown me away and convinced me to choose it over an Apple product in the same league. And I’m still open to that possibility. And I’m still waiting.

The truth is, if your job is to inform people, you should put all your personal preferences aside, check your facts, and write your piece. I feel that today, a healthy debate — especially if it involves Apple in a way or another — needs less polarisation and a more informed exchange of opinions. But to properly inform readers, tech writers should do a better job than what they’re doing now. In this field, doing your homework is getting harder, but sometimes choosing quality over speed or sheer output wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

The Author

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!