The Next iPhone: Why Assumptions are Nearly Always Wrong

Apple, once upon a time, lost the computer PC market. You can argue about why that happened, and how they could have reacted differently, and how someone should have foreseen something at the time which would have stopped someone from taking over something. That’s great, and maybe true, in a too-late-to-matter way.

But the point is that it happened once. Apple since hasn’t let any other market that they enter slip from their monolithic grasp. The MP3 player has been dominated by the Cupertino company for years, and will continue to be. The tablet market is quickly becoming crowded with me-too competitors who can’t match Apple in the beautiful, powerful hardware or their simple, yet powerful, operating system.

Only the phone market is different. Undoubtedly, if the carriers didn’t exist, Apple would continue dominating this market. It isn’t the continuous flow of Android devices that have made Google’s OS come out on top in marketshare, or the cheaper devices. Instead, it’s simply the wider availability. On T-Mobile? There’s an Android device. On AT&T? You betcha. Verizon? Sprint? Same deal. Android is quickly becoming a ubiquitous platform. However, even adding one more carrier to its U.S. arsenal, Apple has been able to at least make headway on closing the leaky faucet.

The iPhone 4, though, is aging. A phone isn’t considered high-end by the geeks anymore unless it has a dual-core processor, and some type of next-generation cellular connection (no, I don’t consider HSPA+ to be 4G, so I refuse to aid the brilliant marketing schemes put in place by AT&T and T-Mobile). The iPhone 4, though an amazing device all the same, has neither of these. But, it is Apple: it will continue to sell, and sell well.

Though it will sell well, Apple is under pressure: most are pegging the release of the iPhone 5 in the fall of this year, and not the predicable WWDC-timeframe that has been held since the original iPhone was launched. The tech world will get bored in that amount of time; Android devices are literally released weekly. Windows Phone 7 could, potentially, get its act together and capitalize on this turn of events. HP/Palm could do the same. BlackBerry… well, I don’t have much confidence in their management as it stands; I won’t comment there. So the geeks get bored, when the media finds another phone to love for the summer while Apple toils away at the iPhone 5 that is rumored to only be a small, spec-bump? They’ll start talking about that One Device, falling ever in love with it. That almost happened with the HTC Evo 4G; a certain counter-culture rose up around it, and positioned it as the true anti-iPhone. It was a device that was better in every way to the iPhone 4, or so the dedicated users wanted to believe. In reality, I continue to doubt that, but it worked: the Evo 4G continues to sell well, even a year (which is closer to a decade in the Android world; think dog years) after the initial release.

Already, Apple will face stiff competition from multiple parties and directions. So how, in any way, would releasing a somewhat spec-bumped device make any sense? The iPhone 4 is a beautiful device, but it has faced a comparatively large share of setbacks and criticisms. Why would Apple stick to this design that has been associated with breaking glass backs, creepy location tracking, and the infamous “antennagate?” Why would Apple want current iPhone 4 users to just sit back and say, “Well, it’s just a slightly faster processor and a better camera,” as they pass up on the iPhone 5.

They wouldn’t, and the whole argument surrounding why Apple would just bump the specs falls apart when you realize that the iPhone 3G to 3GS upgrade did not lay out a Yellow Brick Road that has to be followed for every other iPhone. It makes no sense to repeat the decision that worked when there was no real competition to the iPhone, now that competitors are crawling out of every carrier like zombies that just won’t die. It’s poor business strategy, and Apple isn’t willing to risk losing this market like it did the PC market. In the famous words of Gene Kranz, I suspect that “failure is not an option” for Apple right now; this might even be personal for the enigma that is Steve Jobs and the executives at Apple.

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Apple is not an ignorant company; they won’t lie down and let Google walk over them. It’s obvious that the two companies are locked in combat, comparable to what Apple and IBM did in the early 1980s. If Apple slips to a low percent of the marketshare, then its position as having the best and most apps will start to dwindle as developers target the larger audience behind Android. If they get behind much more than they are now, then it will become increasingly harder to catch Google; the further behind, the more the odds stack against them.

No, Apple knows this. And they’re acting on it. I highly doubt that the next iPhone upgrade will be small and incremental; I would expect a design upgrade. There has been at least one reputable leak where the iPhone 5 is projected as having a totally revamped design, one that seems to mesh more with the design of the MacBook Air than the sharp, pointed profile that the iPhone 4 commands: a teardrop shaped device, smooth and almost impossibly thin with a slightly larger screen and a completely revamped Home button. Sounds interesting, no?

So why would Apple want to release a mediocre spec bump to a device when they could do this? Wouldn’t Apple want to try to entice as many iPhone 4 users as possible to upgrade? Wouldn’t they want to have a device that stands out among the army of Android, instead of one that has an aging design that is being emulated by the competition?

I’m highly skeptical of the next iPhone only being a small upgrade. Maybe hope is clouding my judgement, but there’s been few leaks or rumors that don’t boil down to the same assumption: iPhone 5 is to iPhone 4 as the iPhone 3GS was to the iPhone 3G. Besides the one bonus of having cases that are compatible with the new model, there is no real benefit to keeping the same design, especially since the current design has faced staunch criticism since it was launched. Instead, I suspect that this rumored fall release is there so that they can have more time to tweak and perfect; is it still a “delay” if it was premeditated? The fall release schedule is just that: a schedule. Apple probably made the decision long ago that the iPhone 4 was still competitive and could tide them over the summer months, which would allow for more fine-tuning than would normally be possible for both the hardware and the operating system.

It’s as if we are preparing ourselves for a small update, when in reality Apple needs another out-of-the-park home-run more than ever. Shouldn’t we demand more from the company that brought about the smartphone revolution?

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