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On Apple, the new iPhones and points made and missed

As you might expect, overnight some smart folks wrote some smart posts about the smart things going on in Cupertino (our wrap up of the event can be found here). Yesterday I went on local TV to talk about the 5c and 5s, and as I drove away I realized that I hadn't had time to chat about CoreMotion, new camera modes and a half dozen other things Apple announced yesterday.

To a casual observer, iPhones are improving in an iterative fashion. If you look a bit deeper and consider Apple's business, its purpose and its plans -- well, things are much more exciting than most people realize. Apple keeps integrating hardware and software in key ways that leave competitors behind.

It's OK if most people don't "get it." But I do take exception when otherwise smart people begin grousing about how "Apple hasn't done anything new since Steve Jobs died" because that is both false and misleading. First of all, neither invention nor innovation began with Steve Jobs and it didn't die with him. Apple's core reason for existing is to make the best products it can. Everything I saw yesterday was an affirmation of this.

Cost

Speculation was the "c" stood for "cheap", but the iPhone 5c is not a cheap phone. As Ben Thompson points out, it's actually a bit pricey, especially compared to some Android models. Ben goes on to explain that Apple will sell a bunch of these, and the 4S is now the "cheap" iPhone. Beyond that, he makes an excellent point about the underlying message from yesterday's dog-and-pony show: Apple is still cool. The "c" stands for colors, and Apple has another cool product that comes in colors called the iPod -- a device that became revolutionary when coupled with the iTunes Music Store. As Wall Street, jaded tech writers and the like keep worrying about whether Apple has lost its mojo, Tim Cook made it abundantly clear that Apple isn't giving up ground in the cool department by kicking off the event with the iTunes Music Festival wrap-up and ending the event with several songs from Elvis Costello.

How is having music in your DNA not cool, again? This is why people stand in line for the iPhone. Samsung can poke fun all it wants, but it's the sort of eat-your-heart-out parody that makes me feel badly for them, like the kid who wants to be cool and tries to make himself cool by making fun of other people.

Beyond "cool" (whatever it means), what about features? Tim Cook explicitly said Apple doesn't cram features into a phone; the alternative approach would harken back to the boxed software days when applications like Microsoft Money and Intuit's Quicken would battle with bullet-point feature sets in an effort to woo customers. I'd like to think we're beyond this, but the market still rewards the "L@@K NEW!" mentality of feature-hungry bargain-basement consumers -- aka the "lowest common denominator." Is it any wonder Android's market share is larger than iPhone? Of course not, just as the streets are not teeming with BMWs or Mercedes.

The point is, if you want a great experience, you buy Apple. If you just want features, choose your poison. And what about that experience?

Simplicity

Small touches mean everything when a human uses something. Apple excels at the small touches that add up to make something special. The 5s has an amazing camera, a way to track motion without nuking the battery, a new-to-Apple security technology, and an insanely powerful processor. What that means to, say, my parents, is that they don't have to worry about washed out or miscolored pictures when using the flash. My mom can probably skip that Fitbit upgrade she was pondering. The passcode-entry aggravation that might have her avoiding any on-device security can be simplified and superseded with a single finger's touch. And while they won't be gaming soon, the fluidity and speed of the OS and apps will be a noticeable improvement (they are using a 4S currently).

Federico Viticci wrote a lengthy piece on these small touches, and how Apple is able to integrate hardware and software in such a way that the device has a seamless operation you just don't get with most Android devices. Consider, as he does, the Touch ID technology. Apple integrated this to make the experience for customers a better one than they had before. As Viticci points out, when you add iBeacons microlocation awareness into the mix, things get really interesting and even more seamless. With those two building blocks, you can verify who you are and your device can interact with objects in real space. This tech has a while to go before customers experience it, but when they do I predict there will be very little head-scratching and confusion and more embracing of the "Internet of things" -- all of which is designed to make our lives better, simpler.

I'm sure some tech writers will look at Touch ID as a gimmick (or worse, uncritically repeat absurdities about "Apple is sending your fingerprints to the NSA!" -- assuming Touch ID works through the same local tech as device passcodes, security maven Rich Mogull explains that Apple's passcodes and print data are hashed in a way that prevents their extraction). Worse, they will see it as a useless feature added on in desperation. Fact is, for the average consumer who tires of constantly typing in passwords, it will be a welcome relief. And for the millions of iPhone users who don't have a passcode at all, it will be a major security upgrade.

If you were holding out for NFC, you're not getting it. NFC is hardly "simple" and support isn't going to be forthcoming. While I'm sure Apple has toyed with it, the company has made the decision that it doesn't line up with its core values (yet) and so it wasn't in the new iPhones. Until that tech becomes easier to use or more prevalent, I wouldn't expect to see it in Apple's gear.

Right and Wrong-Thinking

The bottom line here, and one people miss all the time, is that Apple designs products for people. Not pundits or analysts or even day traders. As Tron "fights for the users," so does Apple. You may feel that Apple deliberately creates "lock-in" to the iOS/Mac/iTunes ecosystem as a business strategy, but frankly, my Ogg Vorbis loving friends out there (you know who you are), every smart consumer electronics business is rapidly trying to do the same thing. Windows is not Mac is not Chrome OS is not Kindle, etc. You opt into an ecosystem and largely, through convenience or inertia if not through conscious choice, that's where you stay. I know the world my kids grow up in will be less interoperable when it comes to media, but more interoperable when it comes to services -- and I think I'm OK with that.

When pundits try to push a point about "feature sets," however, they are missing the entire point. Witness this post by Doc Searls called "Apple Rot" wherein he tries to make the "Apple is doomed!" argument that has played out for many years (not coincidentally, immediately after Steve Jobs died, but certainly frequently brought up long before then).

Notice how Doc's bullet points are remarkably like the feature bullets on the back of a box of Quicken from 1999? Doc is worried that Apple is merely updating things incrementally, and despite not using the worn-out term "breakthrough product" (whatever that means), that's exactly what he feels is missing. Apple isn't innovating. Apple is just iterating. Well, yes. But do we worry Mercedes will disappear because the company has yet to introduce a flying car? What's the last category-redefining washing machine you couldn't wait to try? And yet people still buy them -- the mind boggles.

Doc is falling into the feature trap. I'm not sure if he missed Tim Cook's note on features, but the point of Apple is to make great products. If that means the iPhone just needs some spiffing up, because adding 30 more things (20 of which aren't ready for prime time) would be a waste to consumers, then so be it. My parents don't care about NFC. They don't want to wave their hands over their phone like an idiot to go to another photo. They sure as heck don't need a "phablet" device that covers half their face. Apple isn't about cramming features into phones -- nor is it about creating a nonsensical new product simply because it is new. iWatch? Give me a break. It's not time yet.

The Delta

Where Apple ends and Android (and others) begin has to do with the will of the creators. I honestly get the feeling certain features in Android devices are just trial balloons. And while Windows Phone seems compelling (I would personally be willing to try one for a while), stuff like a 41MP camera in a phone is mere gimmickry. Apple does things because the creators in the company and the management of the company want to do them, and ultimately because the guiding principle behind Apple is to make the experience for the consumer, on balance, better. That doesn't mean catering to every single need of every single human on Earth, although surely that is what Wall Street and pundits have come to expect.

The delta in the jaded expectations of writers and the joy of consumers is vast. I have witnessed people jumping from feature phone to iPhone or cheap Android to iDevice and see the delight in their lives as a result. They don't wax poetic about the A5 processor, they don't rave about the Retina screen, they just know "it's so much easier to do X with this iPhone."

Look, I suffered through a lot of interfaces in my life. Remember DOS? Remember GEOS? Remember Windows Me? Never mind all the software we consumers are forced to suffer through today in the form of lazy website designs and poorly-planned enterprise applications. We do suffer them because we have to.

Apple is aware that people do not have to suffer through a phone's interface. They have choices. Typically the limiting factor for consumers all over the world is money. On this, Apple is unwilling to compromise, and that's why it remains the King of Consumer Experiences. Steve Jobs cooked that into the DNA of the company, and Tim Cook -- a leader in his own right -- continues to carry that banner. And by the way, Apple will be making three iPhones in 10 colors, so how's that for choice?

Say what you want about Cook's leadership, cite all the market share analysis you like, but unless you're pointing to a product with a more integrated, easier-to-use experience than what Apple offers, you are pointing in the wrong direction. In my humble opinion, Apple is going in the right direction.