The one big surprise about the iPhone 5 is that there are no big surprises. At all.
Not in the sense that it doesn’t have feature A or lacks feature B but that everyone was more or less right about what it would look like and what it would contain. The common consensus that I set out in my last column was pretty much spot on.
A day or two before the launch, UK newspaper The Guardian ran a crowd-sourced article asking readers to predict the likely features of the iPhone 5, from the form factor to the chips that powered it. In almost all cases the majority rule was spot on.
We’d peeked into the bottom of our parents’ wardrobe the week before Christmas and taken careful stock of all the likely bumps and shapes and felt all the wrapped gifts. Come Christmas morning we had a good idea what to expect. Boring.
Once upon a time, secrecy and surprise was the life blood that ran through Apple’s veins. Under Steve Jobs the company would keep its cards close to its chest believing the big reveal at keynotes was an essential part of the marketing process as well as a way to protect IP.
It used to release false secrets to track the source of leaks, like a barium meal creeping through the organisation and out into the press and blogosphere.
Now, gone are the days when images of the new iWhatever vanished from blogs only to be replaced with notices stating they had been removed at the behest of Apple lawyers.
With the exception of new software releases – the Mountain Lion announcement caught everyone hopping apart from a tiny, Apple-selected group of tech writers – nothing Apple really does comes as a huge surprise anymore.
Design and development in public
However, this predictability isn’t down to a lack of innovation or successful delivery. Instead, it’s more because increasingly it is designing and developing in plain sight of the world’s media, analysts and developers.
The rumour mill churns out so many stories that some of the reports must have traces of veracity. The Apple-obsessed tech community pores over grainy shots taken of boards due purportedly for new iPhones and mythical, tiny iPads.
Analysts pore over inventory orders arriving at parts manufacturing firms like ancient diviners examining the entrails of birds.
Developers scan their logs for Apple devices with mysterious device denominations. The iPad 3,2, the iPhone 4,3 – traces of ghosts of machines undergoing tests in Cupertino labs.
With so much truth, evidence, speculation, bogus leads and verisimilitude swirling about, come keynote time and the big reveal it’s hardly a surprise that nothing is, well, a surprise.
As the narrator in classic movie Withnail and I states: “Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day”.
Still, the leaks are embarrassing for Apple. Not least because one bright spark managed to work out that Apple was releasing an iPhone with the ‘5’ moniker and a new iTunes because of URL placeholders showing up in the site’s search engine hours before the event started.
All these lapses a few months after Tim Cook promised to double down on product secrecy. Oh dear. But does it really matter any more?
Boring, boring Apple
In my last article I predicted that the iPhone 5 was guaranteed to disappoint. Not because it would be a sub-standard device, most reviews seem the state the opposite, but because as a maturing product it would be more a case of evolution than revolution.
Large sections of the tech press and community yearned for revolution and there was bitter disappointment once Apple took the wraps of its new flagship device. It looked much like the last one.
Look at the remainder of the Apple product line. With the exception of the iPod nano, most products are moving along an evolutionary path rather than being reincarnated in a different form every year.
The external design of the iMac is essentially unchanged since 2007. The MacBook Pro even longer. The Mac Pro, iPod Touch and even the MacBook Air have hardly been redesigned from the ground up in recent times.
It’s a safe bet the iPad won’t be anything other than a slab of glass in a metal case next Spring. Apple is fine tuning the wheel, not reinventing it. The real magic is taking place under the glass, in the software and redesigned chips and circuits.
If the tech media had designed the iPhone 5 they wanted it would look like the equivalent of the car Homer invents in The Simpsons episode ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou’.
Function over form
It’s ironic that the company is now being criticised not developing a new form but instead for developing the capability of its function.
With the iPhone 5, Apple has seemingly focused on delivering improvements to the things that people most like and use with their device, finessing a good design – improving the stuff that matters. Yet the accusations of ‘boring Apple’ are still ringing.
The other things ringing are the cash registers. The iPhone 5 shipping dates have been pushed back three to four weeks to account for demand.
Orders have outpaced those of the iPhone 4S, which sold four million in three days last October. The iPhone 5 had orders of over two million in less than 24 hours, with some analysts predicting it could sell as many as 10 million devices by the end of the month. Not bad for a boring phone.
Maybe boring is good. Maybe more mobile manufacturers should aspire to being boring, to emulate the Apple business model. Maybe a little dreariness would do wonders for their profits. Maybe lacklustre products would revitalise their position in the market.
Maybe Apple doesn’t need secrets quite as much as it used to. Maybe flourishes and surprises aren’t as valuable as a winning formula. Maybe Tim Cook shouldn’t worry so much about doubling down on secrecy. Boring, boring Apple.