Opinion: The iPhone Apple was forced to make

Apple's iPhone 5 is uninteresting

If you're hoping for an iPhone bashing, go elsewhere. If you're a fanboy looking for an iPhone mash note, this isn't for you, either. All I'm offering, I'm afraid, is a dose of reality.

I have a Windows desktop and laptop, an Android phone and an iPad, the three operating system/device combinations that, IMHO -- and only for this very moment -- represent the best bang for the buck in their respective categories. In earlier days I've been a Commodorable newb, an Amiga Toasterhead and even a fever-crazed Macophiliac. I have little brand loyalty -- advertising doesn't work, and buzzwords just make me angry. If I buy something, you can be sure it was ruthlessly scrutinized for my purposes.

The iPhone, as of yet, hasn't managed to convince me, largely due to a priority clash that puts me outside Apple's chosen market. I want a device that is capable, efficient and, if possible, simple. The Apple model favors simple, capable and, if possible, efficient. It seems subtle, but the difference between those priorities is dramatic.

In fact, Apple's success has made finding what I want all the more challenging. With Google and Microsoft trying to replicate Apple's model, the whole "simple first" paradigm is starting to become a real problem. That icon grid Apple adopted from Palm was great for a device with 12 apps in 1996, but it's just ridiculously annoying for 120 apps in 2012.

The micro-app developer model has yielded a market with 700,000 apps that have 100 apps' worth of differentiation. I have at least two dozen photo apps between my Android phone and iPad to do all the little things one good app should do -- and trying to remember which one does what I want is a matter of opening each until I see the interface I recognize. The war on physical buttons guarantees I'll never get a camera app open in time for a fleeting picture. And to top it all off, now I can look forward to a jumble of random tiles on my desktop: Windows 8 with a mouse and keyboard. It's just so -- sigh -- I don't even want to talk about it.

Apple has pushed the market to a point where everything is so simple that it hides from you in plain sight. Amid a mess of disjointed apps, we forget what we have installed and what each app does, and good luck finding one when you need it. The focus has been on mass quantities of simple for so long that we have all but forgotten about elegance and efficiency.

That said, the iPhone 5 is big news for what it isn't. With each new iPhone, you could expect at least one new, earth-shattering technological leap: capacitive multitouch, six-axis accelerometer with compass, high-quality camera, Siri, etc. Something gloriously geekerific. But I couldn't help but notice that the iPhone 5 doesn't have a claim to fame. Spec-wise, it's pretty middling, a $99 contract phone by most measures. It's just kind of meh. On the software end, not much more than playing catch-up to Android.

Don't get me wrong here, I have no doubt that it's a great phone and will set sales records. It's just uninteresting. So uninteresting, in fact, that it's interesting. Apple is transitioning from a cult of personality that knew how to sell inspiration into something not quite "that," and that transition may be playing into this.

Apple's (modern) business model has depended on establishing new isolated markets, not surviving in crowded ones. What we have in the iPhone 5 is a defensive posture -- Apple simply had to get a new phone out, now. Google has been getting its Android house in order, wooing weary iPhone users with newer, bigger, faster things. And then there's the specter of Windows Phone 8.

You may laugh, but don't count Microsoft out of the hunt yet. Sure, Microsoft has done one incalculably stupid thing by forcing the tile interface on an angry desktop customer base that DOES. NOT. WANT. IT. But in the grand scheme of things, it knows that the days of physical mouse and keyboard dominance are coming to a close. As gambles go, I'd say it's a good one, but let's just say I would have gone with a more nuanced approach.

Being fanatically pragmatic, I am fascinated by, if not a little envious of, those who are swayed by pure intangibles. Having previously been a Mac user for many years, I recognize both the echo chamber within as well as the defensiveness often displayed to those outside. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, so long as the company can continue to inspire such a culture. So, after a long wait, Apple releases an unremarkable iPhone during a lull in top-tier Androids, and a month before Microsoft starts begging customers to think different-er.

Getting existing customers back into a two-year contract, where they will be unlikely to look over the garden walls, is a wise strategy. But it's just a strategy, notably lacking in inspiration or ethos, the things that make Apple -- well, not everyone else. Inertia will sell the iPhone 5, but the last time Apple had to rely on inertia was the '90s, when it tanked.

I appreciate having hard choices to make between competitive products. I've always found Apple products appealing and worth a serious look. I'm just not seeing the draw of the iPhone 5, and considering how long it took to show up, I'm wondering whether Apple is out of ideas or out of passion. If Apple has been reduced to just getting something out the door, that doesn't speak well to its confidence level. The next couple of release cycles will be very interesting.

On the upside, perhaps a less inspirational Apple will save my desktop from Microsoft's clumsy attempt at "simple."

Jeff Ello gives technology a nudge for the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. He can be contacted at jello@jello.net, LinkedIn, Twitter and just about everywhere else.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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