The new iPhone is a people’s evolution
Revolutions can be exciting, but sometimes evolution can be even more powerful. With the curtain drawn back today on what exactly the new iPhone will do (and will be called), Apple is entering a period of consolidating its lead. Its next trick is to outflank smartphone competitors as deftly as it has in the tablet wars.
The news on iPhone 5 Day began with some some telling iPad statistics: The tablet’s market share has grown from 62% to 68% year-over-year through June, despite strong (relatively speaking) competition from Amazon’s Kindle Fire. And the iPad accounts for a borderline inconceivable 91% of all web surfing with tablets.
Why did CEO Tim Cook drop these little tidbits before the main event? To force the audience, as only the great magicians can, to look “over there” at the shiny stats instead of “over here,” where the devices generating those stats aren’t much changed. And to telegraph his master plan.
All told the newest things about the iPhone 5 aren’t really new. It will sport a four-inch screen, catching up to the standard of most other top-end smartphones. It will access the world’s fastest 4G LTE data networks. The camera gets an upgrade. There will be three mics, the better to allow Siri to give you questionable advice. As I tweeted during the presentation: “Tall, thin, dark and handsome. What’s not to like?”
All fine and dandy, but not worth champagne sabering and a balloon drop.
But there’s the rub. Since Apple disrupted the smartphone business with the original iPhone five years ago, it has maintained a significant market share advantage. But it has also seen the competition mushroom and … flatter the company with imitation (sometimes illegally). Most smartphones look astonishingly like the iPhone, and nothing did before the iPhone.
And while we obsess about what our phones look like, what goes on beneath the hood is as important. Google, with an even more remote connection to the business than Apple had before 2007, designed credible alternative mobile phone software that it gives away and which powers the vast majority of iPhones competitors. And it bought its very own handset company, Motorola Mobility.
But there is now chaos in the smartphone world — and out of this chaos, Apple intends to impose order. Nokia and Microsoft have stumbled out of the gate with the new Lumia. Blackberry surrendered the keyboard wars, alienated customers with network outages, and is watching helplessly as its big business customers happily allow their employees to bring their own Apple devices to work. Samsung, still the global smartphone market share leader, is on the ropes, as Apple savors a sweet patent victory. The billion-dollar judgement is inconsequential. The complete shattering of Samsung’s strategy is utterly destabilizing.
And then there’s Apple’s main rival, Google, which is still re-tooling Motorola Mobility. It, at least, still has the Near Field Communication payments turf to itself as Apple once again declined to include the still somewhat arcane NFC technology in the latest iPhone.
Now Apple — hoarding more than $100 billion in cash — is looking on in amusement. It has finally added missing features that its competitors thought up, but that it couldn’t be bothered to include earlier. (243 million sold iPhones offer luxury in that department.) It’s relishing a historical company valuation, driven primarily by iPhone sales. A JP Morgan analysis says iPhone 5 sales could be so strong, Apple might even account for 0.5% of the United States’ Gross National Product.
As the iPad bulldozed each new comer, every competing tablet has been met with a rhetorical question: “Why wouldn’t you get an iPad?”
Now Apple is trying to make sure competing smartphones are met with a version of the same query. If you can’t exactly beat the iPhone on price, power, features, screen size or access to data networks, well, then, why …
Was this the most exciting reveal in Apple history? Hardly. Will any one thing the iPhone 5 does really prompt one sale? No.
Nevertheless, Tim Cook sees a roadmap in evolution. It leads to hegemony. By keeping the most innovative aspects of the iPhone while adding the handful of things that differentiated competing phones, Cook has positioned Apple as a company that makes devices that can be all things to all people.
If Steve Jobs was Willie Wonka, the reclusive genius iconoclast, Tim Cook is the Wizard of Oz: a conjurer of dreams you already have.
PHOTO: Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook takes the stage during Apple Inc.’s iPhone media event in San Francisco, California September 12, 2012. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach