Thoughts on Apple’s iPhone 7 Event Pt. 1

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Earlier this year I wrote a piece about Apple’s competition – it was mainly in response to an article by Daniel Eran Dilger, writing for Apple Insider, called “Apple's competition is going to have a tough year in 2016”. In that piece, I made this comment on the smartphone market:

 
With 94% profit share of the global smartphone market, essentially the whole thing, it’s impossible to look away from Apple, as it’s impossible to associate any credibility with any other smartphone manufacturer attempting to “compete” in the same premier tier as iPhone.
 

That was in February.

Since then, the Android flagship season passed, this time around bringing the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, Google’s major announcements on Project Ara, the “modular” LG G5, and the OnePlus 3, among other things.

How did those phones fare? Well, there are two major benchmarks I want to observe here: first being sales. Yes, iPhone sales dropped year-over-year for the first time during their last fiscal quarter. In fact, it was the company’s first year-over-year decline in general since 2003. Lots of doomsaying went around, but was it warranted? 51.2 million iPhone unit sales during that quarter says absolutely not, in my opinion. If any of the aforementioned phones sold anywhere close to that number, even over the span of its entire product cycle, much less a single quarter, I think we’d be hearing about it by now.

Second benchmark: sheer performance. Remember that video by PhoneBuff I linked to of the year-old iPhone 6s outpacing the Note 7? Well I went ahead and gone through PhoneBuff’s archive of comprehensive speed test videos, and it turns out that the 6s is still the reigning champ, having beat the S7 and the OnePlus 3. (Although, to its credit, the OnePlus 3 came around 3 seconds close to matching the 6s… which is still not saying a lot for a phone announced 9 months after the phone it's competing against.)

I’m not saying these Android phones are bad or useless – they just can’t claim to be better than the iPhone.

Now Apple’s rolling out their 7 iPhones this week. Let’s take a look at them.

 

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus

The industrial design of these phones is the 6/6s perfected. The antenna lines are sleeker and subtly-colored, the darker black on the Black model makes instantly you wonder why Space Grey was even a thing, and of course, the addition of the sleek and glossy Jet Black. Complains have already come about of its potentially scratch-prone surface, but if it will attract scratches anyways, I think it’s best to see how that would look on the surface over time. Even more scratch-prone surfaces on Apple’s plastic phones – the 3G, 3GS, and 5c – didn’t stop customers from buying and enjoying them. (In fact, remember when almost all of Apple’s products consisted of white plastic surfaces?)

Two of the most important innards – the processor and the camera – received massive improvements. The A10 Fusion chip isn’t just a faster chip – it’s a more optimized chip, which will switch between cores depending on your use. If you need the performance, the high-performance cores will make the phone run at 2x the speed of the 6 iPhones. If you’re doing simple tasks, the power-efficiency cores will run instead, which operate at one-fifth the power of the high-performance cores. Apple claims about 1-2 hours of additional battery life as a result. It's a case in point why traditional spec sheets used to contrast Android phones to the iPhone can't tell the whole story.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the iPhone 6s’ lead in performance before the 7, here’s John Gruber on the evolution of the A-series chips and how it continues to set the iPhone apart from the competition:

 
The iPhone has all the benefits (in short: superior design) that would keep me, and I think most other iPhone users, on the platform even if it didn’t have a performance advantage. But it does have a significant performance advantage, and it is exclusive to Apple. This is an extraordinary situation, historically. And year-over-year, it looks like Apple’s lead is growing, not shrinking. It’s not a fluke, but a sustained advantage.
 

It’s hard to imagine Android flagships catching up next year.

The camera (well, just that of the 7 Plus) now uses a dual-lens system. We’ve seen it before (even if only because it was rumored that Apple would make one to begin with), but I can’t help but think that this is really the best implementation we’ve seen of it. It’s used for depth mapping to create artificial bokeh (coming later), and for better zoom. I’m curious to see how both the bokeh and zoom work myself. Also, according to Matthew Panzarino on Twitter, the dual-lens system can do a bit more:

I’m not expecting the cameras to at all match DLSR-grade quality, but if it can come close, that’s still an incredible, incredible feat.

And of course, while not a feature exclusive to iPhone 7, the upgrade to AirPods will give customers a glimpse into Apple’s ideal vision for a wireless world. To me, this is one of the more exciting announcements – as always, it’s a matter of implications. Apple went as far as to develop another chip, the W1, out of dissatisfaction with Bluetooth. Sure, only the AirPods and some Beats wireless headphones have them now, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for this chip in other devices. To me, this is one of those “Touch ID” technologies that offers convenience now, but will eventually be vital to Apple’s product strategy as it becomes integrated into new products.

Even sans AirPods, customers should expect a solidly updated iPhone with the 7.


 

Apple is absolutely not resting on their laurels here, which they certainly deserve to do given that the 6s is still comparable to – even better than, in many cases – 2016’s flagships. While deserved, it’s not the Apple way of doing things. The only competition at this point is the previous iPhone and customers’ expectations, so if it can be done better, it will, and it was.

How this will translate to sales and profits, I’m not sure exactly. While I’m optimistic this will sell really well, as iPhones do, I don’t see this update aiming to attract new market segments. Apple has already targeted major markets such as the big phone users, the Android user looking for something better, and Chinese users. Apple’s made it explicit that they want to target the Indian market, but I fail to see how the iPhone 7 addresses them specifically. Maybe they’re now targeting prosumer/amateur photographers with the 7 Plus camera technologies, which is fine, but it won’t be boosting sales enough to drive them out of their current slump. I think it really rests on how many sales they achieve in their current segments, and like I said, I’m optimistic it will at least be in line with expectations this time around.

So now that has all been said, it’s easy to see the iPhone 7 being another multi-billion-dollar rake-in for the company – it’s kind of a tired narrative at this point, but it’s simply the truth. Millions were already guaranteed to buy it, so did Apple create an update worthy of the excitement that now surrounds iPhone? Absolutely.

I’m not a believer of the notion that the smartphone market and category of device are well into its maturation phase – I think that comes from the lack of anything really exciting that could scale at a consumer market level that isn’t on the iPhone. It seems the only hope left for any true innovation in the industry is with the iPhone.

In the next post, everything else from the iPhone 7 event, including Nintendo’s appearance and Apple Watch...