iPhones Less Cool Now, But Still Important

With the release of our mobile SDK on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a lot about mobile operating systems lately. In particular, I’ve realized something interesting: the “cool” factor of iPhones simply isn’t what it used to be. When they first came out, they were breath-catchingly impressive. You noticed when someone had an iPhone. There was just something special about them. Now, I only find myself noticing when someone doesn’t have an iPhone. I find that I only ask people about their phones, experiences, etc., when they aren’t using an iPhone.

I think that there are a few reasons for this. As the top of this post implies, iPhones just aren’t all that sexy any more, even if you ignore things like “Bendgate” with the iPhone 6. My parents have iPhones. My parents understand iPhones. iPhones aren’t new any more. Instead, they are considered a safe, reliable option. In terms of installed users, iPhones might be the single most popular line of smartphones. Even if there are more total Android-based smartphones in the hands of users, this figure spans multiple manufacturers and model types.

Since the breakthrough that was the original iPhone release, the mystique has faded somewhat, but let’s take a walk down memory lane. Apple did what few (if any) others could have. It put pressure on carriers to set the scene for today’s proliferation of cellular data access, paving the way for phone-based always-online navigation and ubiquitous palm-top computing. The design, UI and functionality of the iPhone were the product of arduous, secretive development processes, and the final product was more than just impressive: it was revolutionary. Now, the war has been won, and there is a smartphone in almost every pocket. We as a community are literate in touch-screen technology and comfortable with the minimal reliance on physical buttons.

In addition to the quality of the original iPhone, Apple had long been a tech company that did an amazing job of selling itself as an image-based lifestyle company. Part of that was down to the vision and charisma of co-founder Steve Jobs. I still remember watching a keynote presentation by Jobs in which, to whoops of excitement, he announced the replacement of the stylish, but Carpal tunnel syndrome-inducing burger-shaped mouse (centre-bottom in the picture) with the far more comfortable capsule-shaped mouse. Given that he could do so much with so little, it’s unsurprising that he and Apple did so well with a genuine breakthrough like the iPhone.

Jobs is gone now, and successor Tim Cook, while reputedly a genius with logistics and supply chains, lacks Jobs’ personal magnetism. The absence of a world-class company evangelist takes some of the shine off Apple’s image. Apple lagged behind other leading smartphone manufacturers when it came to offering larger screen sizes, and Jobs wasn’t around to convince everyone that it didn’t matter.

A big part of Apple’s marketing strategy in the past has been to present itself as the cooler alternative to the establishment. Key examples of this include the striking 1984-inspired ad for the original Apple Macintosh and the Mac vs PC ads, in which the ubiquitous PC was personified as a staid, sometimes-embittered buffoon, while the Mac’s avatar was stylish, generous and effortlessly competent. These days, Apple is a target of this sort of ridicule — see, for example, this cheeky ad from Samsung. To some degree, Apple has been a victim of its own success: now, Apple is the establishment. As of Q2, 2014, Apple is the largest company in the world, based on market capitalization.

One consequence of the iPhone’s revolutionary impact is that a huge number of consumers have switched to smartphones and, having switched, are now au fait with iPhone-style interfaces, touch screens and the like. This comfort means that, at least in my opinion, Apple is now in a position where its devices are more objectively compared with those offered by competitors based on features and pricing. These have not necessarily been areas of strength for recent iPhone releases, which remain among the more expensive smartphones. In the last few generations, iPhones also haven’t added much in the way of killer features, and in that time, phones running competing platforms like Android have really come along, both in terms of features and compatible software.

Both platforms now claim more than 800k apps, and aggregated user reviews on their respective stores imply that iOS now holds only a slight edge in average app rating (a rough measure of perceived app quality). In particular, the growth in cross-platform support for major apps like Spotify has made switching between iOS and Android increasingly seamless. Taken together, these factors have likely had a large impact on the changes to iPhone’s share of the smartphone user base over the last few years.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of iPhones out there, and they probably aren’t going anywhere. That doesn’t even speak to the tablet space, where iPads seem to remain dominant (numbers are from 2013, but current figures on installed users are harder to find that those on the misleading market share metric).

Anyway, all of this means that iOS is a good target for development, both strategically and practically. It is stable, has a large user base, and Apple’s direct control of the hardware side limits the range of system configurations and form factors to be considered for testing and optimization purposes. In fact, iPhone form factors have been so stable that, starting from the initial 2007 release, their displays didn’t change from 3.5″ until the iPhone 5 went to 4″ in 2012. Apple was also late to offer 4.7″ or larger displays, only doing so with the iPhone 6 in September, 2014.

Of course, the darker side of stability is stagnation. I’d argue that Apple’s delay in increasing screen sizes drove many iPhone users to switch over to Android. There have been Android phones that support 4.7″ or larger displays since at least 2011, a good three years before Apple’s first 4.7″ offering. Samsung released the 4.65″ Galaxy Nexus and the 5.3″ N7000 Galaxy Note the following year, and 2013’s LG Nexus 5 is 4.95″. Nevertheless, the number of different manufacturers and models has also meant that, even within a single generation, Android-based smartphones are a more diverse bunch “under the hood” than are iPhones.

As a developer, Android’s popularity alone makes it wise to support that platform, although the wider range of hardware complicates testing and optimization. As a user, I love my Android phone, and haven’t looked back since I switched from my last iPhone a few years ago.

Despite that, as a software guy and businessman, I have to acknowledge the continuing importance of iOS for development. That’s why we’ll be supporting both iOS and Android when we release the new mobile version of Debenu Quick PDF Library in the next few months.

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