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

From manufacturing processes to marrying elements of user experience with hardware components, Apple(s aapl) 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(s goog) phone strategy; particularly with how it relates to the Moto X.


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(s goog), 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(s sne) 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(s nke) 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.


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(s fb), 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.


34 Responses to “What I like and what I don’t like about the new Apple iPhones”

  1. I am not techy in any sense of the word so I only understood about half of what you said. Seems you are saying the 5s is a good phone. I have a 3gs, old little bugger that has recently slowed to a snail’s pace, and now I’m getting annoyed with it. Was planning to switch to Samsung GS4, but my daughter recently got GS3 and does not like it.

    I can’t wait any longer to get a better phone. Should I stick with iPhone and get a 5 or 5s (not thinking I want the 5c)? Another reason I’ve considered the Galaxy is that I have the hardest time understanding and using iTunes. It’s so confusing! Did I mention that I’m not techy at all?

    What’s your suggestion for which phone I should get? I only use it for making calls, texts, checking my email and FB, checking weather, taking photos, just a few basic things. I’m not much into games or watching videos.


  2. abdoradus

    Your comment about Apple being associated with brushed aluminium just shows how necessary this redesign was. Remember the iPod? Or the white plastic MacBook? Or those chargers that still come in shiny white plastic? That’s what Apple used to be. While they are a premium brand they aren’t Rolex. They must avoid being a brand for rich old people. I like my 4s but if truth be told, recent iPhone models go better with suit and leather briefcase than with jeans and backpack. Not good.

  3. At first I thought Google Now sounded like an updated version of the insipid paper clip from Office. Now I realize it’s much worse. It’s a back seat driver who won’t stop giving advice, never forgets anything you say, gossips about you all over town and can’t be told to F-off because she’s your mother-in-law.

  4. You seem to have forgot that Apple Product line ALWAYS has been a plastic version and a high-end version (iBook vs MacBook Pro, iMac vs Mac Pro, iPods of all variations…) and the iPhone 3G was plastic. And they have never really been low-cost.

    this is exactly in line with Apple. These will sell just as much as the iBook did to the average 18-25 year old. Whom in reality really never was a fan of the luxury feel. And had to cover it up with millions of iphone covers in colors an plastics.

  5. Enjoy reading your balanced article. I think the market didn’t get what they want and just want to throw the toys out of the pram. Apple has other ideas than just selling more phones both in terms of protecting margins and eco-system-user experience (I remain to be convinced but I feel it’s pointless for Apples to put iphones in the hands of mid/low income chinese or indians with no credit cards or no grasp of apps).
    Like you, I worry about the impact of the 5C. Surely the reason for launching it is to differentiate the 5S from the old 5 which tells us that the 5-5S evolution isn’t noticeable enough. So they had to widen the gap and have an excuse to reduce the price but really did cheapened the iphone 5 which surely would have been as profitable to make than creating a whole new factory production line. The lack of improvement on iCloud is also a concern.

  6. Om, not denying the goodness of 5S, but overall, even the 5S is at best, “meeting expectations”, and nothing more. Of course, thanks in large parts to the exaggerated expectations an Apple town hall creates….

    You talk about the 64 bit CPU – one could argue whether more cores are better than more bits ..the jury is still out on this. Gaming devices have had 128 bit CPUs for eons ( My conclusion – 64 bit CPU, even when nicely married to the OS and apps (as in the 5S), is not a true innovation circa 2013. It is just Moore’s law at work.

    Application specific peripheral chips (case in point – Motion processors, speech processors etc) are equally a natural phenomenon in the silicon world. Also, each new generation of chips will swallow an erstwhile peripheral, while reducing cost. Moore’s law at work again – not to be mistaken for true innovation.

    You talk about the iSight camera and how low-end digital cameras a going to die. IMHO, that’s not a direct correlation. Most iPhone buyers are not the target market for low-end digital cameras – in exactly the same way that more sales of Audis and Mercs should be seen as no threat to Mac Donalds ;-)

    And finally, about the much touted finger print scanner… While the simplicity of that is a shining example of the brand promise, a lot seems to be left unsaid. Can multiple people use it? Can I register multiple fingers (what if I cut my finger – can I still use the phone with other fingers?). When can (trust-worthy) apps start using it?

    I couldn’t agree more with the second half of your article (about the 5C), and the superb back-handed compliment in the last sentence. Classic stuff!

    A couple more points:
    The much rumored iWatch has remained just that – a rumor! It is not even a hobby.
    Talking of which, all is silent on the “hobby” front. Apple is struggling with the cloud just as much as they are with the TV content food chain. The TV remains Apple’s Achilles heel. Not that their competitors are having a party on this front, but at least they are a little more active. Steve Jobs had famously claimed that the TV is an under-served market, ripe for disruption. Big words that deserve way more than a nearly forgotten hobby.

  7. Om,

    Bingo on 5s vs 5c. While the strategy might work – I was reminded by Jon Rubenstein’s comment about the old colored tube iMAC (recall the plastic with different color backs). The stock was falling and AAPL had nowhere to go. His comment was ‘Steve was running out of Colors’. I hope Ive and Tim are not. Why settle with only 2 models – why not 3? L, M, H (like BMW 3, 5 and 7 series). 2 does not work. 3 might.

    But the more important comment you made is about the Cloud – iCloud. Eddie Cue has done crap – iCloud sucks. Its not in AAPL’s gene pool to get cloud/infrastructure right (for over 30 years). They need to acquired that gene pool.

    YHOO looks good inside AAPL for that part. Gets the reach, gets infrastructure mojo and a good looking CEO (imagine TIm and Marissa). AAPL needs that now more than ever before GOOG puts more daylight on the cloud/infrastructure.


  8. You lost me at: The new 64-bit architecture is a pretty big deal as it gives the company an edge over rivals.

    64 bit is completely unnecessary in phones and sub-4GB RAM tablets. You should know better.

  9. 5c is aiming at low end market. With your description, i find nothing wrong with it. It’s not mean for the luxury product and not for that level of consumer. So, i still feel impress in my point of view if you treat is as a different class other than 5s.

  10. instead iphone 5 power in a plastic case for a cheaper iphone apple would have been better off putting a slower processor and less flash in the 5/5s housing for the discounted price.

  11. dcompiled

    Hi Om, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m an iPhone / iOS user, and one thing that I have continually wondered about when hearing how great Google Now is, is what specifically it does that is so indispensable.

    When it was first released, I heard about it proactively notifying the user about traffic conditions on the route to work or appointments, sending sports scores of interest, and perhaps changes to a flight reservation if it’s in your gmail account. Also, it notifies about the upcoming weather.

    I don’t deny that those are cool things, but for my particular lifestyle (programmer working from a home office and don’t care about sports scores), it seems like none of those particular features are all that important.

    So I’m wondering if you could fill in some details about how Google Now “fits so seamlessly into daily life that you wonder what you will do without it.” Like, what specifically it does for you every day.

    Also, any details on this: “Google Now, by the way makes Apple’s Siri look like a toy.”?

    From what I understand, other than the preemptive notifications listed above, and possibly better inline web search results, Google Now doesn’t do other things Siri doesn’t and is missing a lot of the deep and seamless integration with text messages, emails, music, reminders, calendar, etc. that Siri offers.

    I’m curious because I hear a lot of (surely deserved) accolades for Google Now, but almost no specific examples.


    • decompiled, I hope you get a reply from Om and others. I am in the same situation you describe. I love the concept of a phone that is always listening and ready to do things for me, so I’m concidering the Moto X, but the features available today in Google Now don’t do much for me. On the other hand, the iPhone 5S has a lot of interesting hardware and software I would like to try out.

  12. Mike Madden

    I love Apple products but the 5S isn’t something that makes me want to run out and grab it like the iPhone 5 did. I am excited about the new processor but the Touch ID isn’t something that I can honestly say would be worth the upgrade.