It’s hard to remember almost a decade later just how much of a game changer the iphone was to the cellphone market. Most of the features we take for granted in the modern smartphone today (touchscreen in place of physical keypad or keyboard, an emphasis on sleek design, robust app ecosystem, the paradigm of the finger as “mouse” for navigating the UI) are all there in the original keynote unveiling Steve Jobs gave in 2007. A lot of things are called revolutionary, but the Iphone truly was in 2007.
But here in 2018? On it’s eighth iteration? The iphone has lost a little of its luster. Part of this comes down to the simple ravages of time that strips everything of it’s newness, part of it that android phones have caught up to the iphone in quality and sophistication, but a big part of it is also that the iphone 8 is fundamentally the same machine as the first iphone. Sure: it’s faster, has a better screen, and a fingerprint reader (and no headphone jack for some inexplicable reason), but its still fundamentally a techno brick with an internet connection. And that lack of innovation is a problem.
Why Change the Way You’re Printing Money?
Some of you hypothetical readers are no doubt giving this article the side-eye by this point. After all, it’s not as though the iphone is any less fantastically profitable for Apple than it was in 2007. The problem I’m talking about is more of an existential one, and one that in the long term could degrade the profitability, success, and popularity of the iphone.
Here’s a rhetorical question that I think gets the heart of the matter: in 2018, why would you buy the iphone over any other high end smartphone? The iphone 8 is a fantastic product, but does it have anything a high end android phone doesn’t? By this point all high end phones have access to the same parts and technology and have homogenized into sleek tech bricks with high resolution screens, fingerprint readers, buttery smooth UIs, high quality cameras, and easily shattered screens.
And as the iphone becomes less and less unique, it will increasingly lose the lead it once had. And that means decreased sales in the future as there becomes less and less reason to buy it. A lot of iphone users don’t want to jump ship to an android phone because they’re already sunk into the iphone ecosystem, but that’s essentially just a form of inertia, and inertia can only last for so long.
So Where Does the Iphone Go From Here?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. Apple has tried a variety of must-have features in the last ten years: Siri, fingerprint reader, size increase, and lack of a headphone jack. These are all nice iterations (minus the death of the headphone jack), but none of them are game changing.
There’s a common meme among tech circles that since Steve Jobs death Apple has stopped innovating and is currently stagnating, and that Tim Cook simply isn’t the visionary that Jobs was. I tend to be skeptical of the “great man” theory of history that places importance on individuals over systems or institutions, and don’t really buy it in this case. The stagnation that the iphone faces started before his death, and I think comes down to a simpler answer: there’s nowhere for the smartphone in its current form to evolve to without making a leap that would alienate a portion of its current user base.
It’s hard to remember here in 2018, but if you were a blackberry user in 2007, you probably balked at the idea of a lack of a physical keyboard in your smartphone. With the advantage of time we can see that getting rid of the physical keyboard and replacing it with more screen was the right decision, but as a consumer in 2007 you might not have picked up the iphone for just that reason. And Apple is too invested in printing money from sales of the iphone to ever really fundamentally change the way the iphone works, even if in the end that leads to its irrelevance. Ultimately, the iphone is a prisoner of its own success.