What I like and what I don’t like about the new Apple iPhones

iPhone 5C

From manufacturing processes to marrying elements of user experience with hardware components, Apple still retains that special edge of creating great hardware and integrating cutting edge technologies in the most human way. That point was reinforced yesterday at its iPhone event.

Actually you just need to see those videos starring Jony Ive to see the attention lavished by the company on the hardware. Here are some of the things that impressed me the most, not because Apple did them first, but because how flawlessly they worked. And I have some thoughts on how this these play against Google’s phone strategy; particularly with how it relates to the Moto X.

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Much to like in the new iPhones

  • The TouchID fingerprint-based security/password system works as advertised. And a lot of that has to do with the new chip that Apple has built for the new iPhone 5s. Apple isn’t the first one to use biometric integration, but they did a bang-up job and this will only help accelerate the biometrics on mobile phones.
  • The way TouchID fingerprint works is that the fingerprint information is encrypted and stored securely in the Secure Enclave inside the A7 chip on the iPhone 5s. Apple explained that fingerprint data is never stored on Apple servers or backed up to iCloud. Third party apps can’t access either. The only thing that accesses it is Touch ID, I was told by an Apple spokesperson via an email.
  • Apple’s approach is the opposite of the cloud-first approach taken by the likes of Google, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I am not sure how to read this especially in the light of recent allegations that security agencies have backdoors into all phones including iPhones. What is the point of fingerprint-based security if there is a back door? Apple didn’t have a response to my questions regarding this issue. In an essay, Bruce Schneier, an expert in privacy and security argued we shouldn’t be deluded by biometrics-based security.
  • Apple is probably one of the most advanced chip companies in the world, except that it isn’t really a chip company; it designs but doesn’t build the silicon. The A7 processor is amazing and when I used the iPhone 5s, the oomph was visible to the eye. It breezed through tasks and everything was amazingly silky. The new chip is good for helping process photos from the new iSight camera.
  • The new iSight camera is pretty much the death knell for low end digital cameras — and perhaps that is why companies like Sony and Fuji are focusing on the mid-to-higher end of market. I played with that camera for a few minutes, and I can tell you I will be taking better photos for my Instagram feed. This blending of hardware oomph with software smarts is possible because of the A7 chip. My photography nerd friends approve of the new capabilities of Apple’s new camera (despite still being 8 megapixels). The FaceTime Camera (front camera) improvements are welcome especially since the selfie-craze has gone mainstream thanks to SnapChat.
  • The new A7-powered iPhone 5s (and whatever new device they make in the future) should be a death knell for portable gaming devices and as my colleague Lauren Hockenson suggested, a chance for the company to take a share of the console market. An A7 inside Apple TV could easily compete with consoles as well, with iPad/iPhone as controllers. Again, this is me just spitballing on possibilities.
  • The new 64-bit architecture is a pretty big deal as it gives the company an edge over rivals. Google is quite vague about their 64-bit plans. I asked Google for clarity and have yet to receive an answer. I will keep waiting. ARM had announced the Cortex A-50 series of 64-bit processors earlier this year and indicated that they will come to market at scale in mid-2014. From that perspective, this is an edge for Apple, at least in the near term.
  • The M7 sensor processor probably is one of the most unique things as it will reduce the drain on the battery and at the same time, it will allow the aggregation of sensor data to shape better and more unique app experiences. In the near term, the M7 sensor essentially opens up opportunities for new fitness applications. M7 will help create a personal computing fabric that will reside on our person — be it wearables such as Nike Fuel band, a smart watch or whatever. Sensor data is a way for apps to get “senses.”
  • The M7 sensor processor, Bluetooth LE support and iBeacon are part of the efforts Apple is making to push “low power everywhere.” At the event yesterday, Phil Schiller, Apple’s vice president of marketing pointed out that the iPhone 5s is going to have the same battery power as the current iPhone — despite the upgraded hardware features.

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The 5C? Color me not impressed

Now for the bad news: it doesn’t matter how many videos Ive stars in; no one really cares about the loveliness of the innards of the device. What matters is how it looks, how it works and how it integrates with the services.

  • Most people think that iPhone 5c is a great product and are cheering Apple for having done it. Jacqui Cheng of Ars Technica nods in approval and so does John Gruber. I am not one of them — I played with it in the demo area and found it a little lacking. Apple extolled virtues of the iPhone 5c being made to Apple’s exacting standards, and that might be so — but it is not for me.
  • Given its recent past, there are three design elements & emotions that I associate with Apple products — brushed metal, understated look and blending of monochromatic colors. Apple products signify a certain amount of luxury and lushness to them. The iPhone 5c doesn’t have any of that. The phones are garish to my eyes but then, as I said, I am a black-white-gray-maybe-blue kinda guy. They feel “budget” to me and the pastel color palette is a little meh. The iPhone 5c is slippery to hold and attracts fingerprints smudges. From my perspective it is missing the luxury feeling. The iPods with color have a more lush feel than these phones crafted from plastic, or polycarbonate as Apple defines it.
  • I thought I would gift these to my nieces but instead will send them the entry level iPhone 5s. It is worth the extra dollars and they will enjoy the iOS 7 much better with the higher oomph of iPhone 5s.
  • I personally will upgrade to iPhone 5s. my iPhone 5 is almost dead, thanks to my unparalleled ability to let it fall from my hands pretty much once a month.

What about cloud services?

Now for what has been on my mind before this event and will probably will be on my mind for a while: Apple’s inability to understand and embrace the internet, the cloud and services.

Arguments can be made that Apple is building big data centers and it video steamed iTunes festival to 100+ countries, but the fact of the matter is that Apple is severely lacking in internet-based capabilities. Just ask any developer who has bet on iCloud and they will tell you so (privately, of course). I am waiting for iTunes Radio to be available at scale.

But all this is marginal stuff compared to the importance of cloud-based intelligence and data-crafted experiences in the future. This past week I signed up for MotoX and customized it. I wasn’t expecting much — another Android phone, right?s

Wrong! It is an Android phone with Google Now done right — it is the first real example of machine-based intelligence being put to use for a better experience on a phone. It fits so seamlessly into daily life that you wonder what you will do without it. And it has its own pair of low-powered processors, similar to what Apple has in the A7, that handle natural voice processing and sensor readings. With those, you can quickly open the camera app with a wrist flip or speak to Google Now without touching the phone.

Google Now, by the way makes Apple’s Siri look like a toy. Of course, I know that just like Facebook, Google is part of the web establishment that erodes our privacy. And yes, I am conflicted by the possibilities of putting machines to work for me and being worked over by the machines.

Either way, it is pretty clear that if Apple needs to stay in the game, it needs to figure out how to factor internet and cloud services into its future. If it can combine their hardware and software capabilities to cloud, it would have access to our hearts and wallets for a long time.

If not, then maybe they should make phablets and five more colors.

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