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iPhone 5’s superior design is Apple’s breakthrough

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:43AM



SAN FRANCISCO As I mingled with other tech writers outside the Yerba Buena Center before Apple's big media event, I wondered what I was going to learn in the next two hours that I didn't already know. There's always something, despite the intensity of the inevitable rumors and leaks.

The iPhone 5 was a dead lock. Updates to the entire iPod line were at least anticipated. The desktop iTunes app appeared to be a ripe, glowing target for a complete rewrite.

All of these things were on my mind. The thing I least expected to learn by the time I left the venue? Easy: "How I would react if I discovered that I had pocketed a prerelease demo iPhone and walked off with it, apparently without Apple or even I myself realizing that I had done so."

Oh, but I'm getting ahead of myself! You want to read about the actual event.

A company that believes it's doing very well indeed by any objective standard isn't shy about sharing numbers. And boy, did we get them. 380 Apple Stores in 12 countries, with 83 million visitors in the previous quarter. 7 million downloads of Mountain Lion, Apple's latest OS. #1 in U.S. notebook market share over the past three months, with growth rate of the Mac hardware market outpacing the growth of the PC market for the past six years. Apple sold 17 million iPads during the previous quarter, making a lifetime total of 84 million...which itself is just a fraction of the 400 million iOS devices they've sold through June. The iPod Touch isn't just the most popular music player in the world...it's also the world's most popular gaming system, according to Apple.

They saved the full-on gloating for the one area in which the "Apple versus Everyone Else" battle is akin to "Imperial Star Destroyer versus two drunk guys in a rented kayak with a flare gun": tablets.

"Our competitors have taken notice," Tim Cook said, after running through the iPad's sales numbers. He made a comment about how big the Graveyard Of Would-Be iPad-Killers has grown since 2010, and then put up a pie chart: the iPad owned 68% of the worldwide tablet market share from April through June.

Then came a second chart showing tablet share in terms of Web usage. 91% of the Web traffic generated by tablets is made by devices identifying themselves as iPads.

"I don't know what these other makers are doing!" Tim said, stealing a line from pretty much every review of every 10" Android tablet I've ever written.

(I shoulda patented that.)

It's like an old-fashioned Soviet May Day Parade. Every branch of Apple's armed services gets to parade past the reviewing stand, with their tanks, missile launchers, and spacecraft in tow, as a celebration to the faithful and as a show of strength to enemies.

Hell, if you've got it, why not flaunt it?

The New iPhone rose from the black stage on a narrow rotating column against an immense black background. This bit of stagecraft was less for the 500 people in the audience as it was for the streaming video that landed on apple.com after the event. The highlight of this new design, after all, is how light and thin it is. I couldn't help but think of that scene from "This Is Spinal Tap" in which an 18" model of Stonehenge is lowered from the rafters into a massive concert stage.

It seemed clear that it'd be called "iPhone 5" and not "the new iPhone." Apple declined to call the third-generation "iPad 3," but they didn't have to: their iPad line is uncluttered. With the iPhone, Apple needs to cover the entire spectrum of phone buyers, which means that they need to manufacture many models and clearly distinguish one from the other. The iPhone 5 is for people who want the newest and most advanced phone. All previous editions now move down one seat. Last year's iPhone 4S becomes the $99 budget phone, and the iPhone 4 is now (good heavens) free with contract.

Pricing on the top-of-the-line model is unchanged: the iPhone 5 is $199, $299, and $399 for 16, 32, or 64 gigabyte models. Preorders begin Friday, with availability on the Sept. 21.

(Unmentioned by Apple: the iPhone 3GS. There are already many international deals in place that make it available on pay-as-you-go plans and I expect that it'll live on, under those same terms).

I'll talk about the iPhone 5 in-depth when I publish my formal review. I had about a half an hour of time with it in Apple's post-event demo room and I liked it a lot. Apple's PR materials tell you that it's much thinner (by 18%) and lighter (20%) than the 4S. Those numbers aren't as compelling as the sensation of actually holding one in your hands. I'd been texting and tweeting and liveblogging from my 4S all morning, and the different in weight was immediately obvious. The iPhone 5's slim profile first inspires a reaction of "No, really, I want to see the real phone," followed by (in my case) an involuntary calculation of how many months I have to serve on my current contract before I can upgrade.

Which is actually an important part of designing a new phone. Is there any other kind of device that's so sense-driven? You feel it in your hands, and you stroke the screen with your fingertips. You look at a wide spectrum of creative content, and you listen to music. I'm certain that if Apple ever figured out what people wanted a phone to smell like, then they'd use that information in their very next release.

I don't think they'd ever make an iPhone with any flavor, however. Licking it would smudge the display, and Apple is exceptionally proud of the iPhone's screen.

Speaking of the screen: yes, the new iPhone's other signature feature is its larger display. As predicted, they decided to keep the width the same and just extended the length of the screen to a wide aspect ratio. They explicitly did it that way so that the iPhone would still be narrow enough to operate one-handed.

Android phones have had larger screens for over a year. They've also had true 4G LTE mobile broadband for ages. Thank God, now the iPhone does, too. Apple announced deals for high-speed coverage in Canada, Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, thus avoiding the problems they had with international LTE support for the new iPad.

Most of the new iPhone's other features are under the hood and can be summed up as: it's faster and it takes better photos.

Will the public embrace the iPhone's new dock connector as an upgrade? The iPhone 5, and all future iOS devices, will feature a new proprietary port Apple calls "Lightning."

(They already make Macs with Thunderbolt ports. Get it?)

If they've already spent a lot of money on iPhone or iPod accessories...maybe not. Lightning will only work with those via a $39 dongle adapter. But honestly, it's a change that Apple needed to make. The same dock connector is used across the entire iPod line (with the exception of the Shuffle, which is small enough to potentially be a choking hazard) and the original wide connector was clearly defining the shape of Apple's products. The Lightning connector is about the size of the nail on a toddler's pinky and can fit anywhere...even, perhaps, on the next iPod Shuffle, which to date has needed to push USB through the headphone jack.

There's an upside for consumers, too: the Lightning connector is double-sided, which means that there's no wrong way to insert it. I confess that I'm a bit worried about the exposed contacts at the end of the connector (my cables rattle around in my laptop bag, unprotected) but only time will tell if those worries are in any way justified.

The design benefits of Thunderbolt were made immediately apparent, with the release of a revamped iPod Touch and iPod Nano. The new Touch is truly "what an iPhone 5 would be if it didn't need to be a phone." It has the same new widescreen display as the iPhone 5, plus a vastly upgraded CPU and camera.

It's also about as flat and light as a graham cracker. Apple had plenty of Touches available in the demo area. If the thinner iPhone 5 felt delightful, the new Touch is so thin and light that it kind of felt a little bit scary.

I'm guessing that Apple anticipated this reaction: it has a neat little pop-out button that lets you attach a safety lanyard. You sure don't want this $299 or $399 device slipping from your fingers when you're taking pictures on a boat, or fluttering out of a pants pocket when you slide out of a booth in a restaurant.

Or is the lanyard a commentary on the kid-friendly nature of the Touch? Many parents buy their teens a Touch as a compromise when they plead for an iPhone, or as a game and educational toy for even smaller kids. You can tell a ten-year-old to (for the love of almighty GOD) please be careful with this thing, but a wrist strap and basic physics can accomplish what a scolding can't.

And then there's the new Nano. Apple has abandoned the square postage-stamp design of the previous edition and returned to the Nano's previous form. Now there's a widescreen, multitouch display that can once again play video in addition to movies. It's still small and light enough to be worn as a fitness player.

As with the iPhone 5 and the new Touch, a real review of the Nano will need to wait until I get a real device to test out. I want to see, for example, if the little $149 Nano can be as agile as a high-powered iOS device. The demo room units had "The Avengers" loaded up. The movie played fine, but the scrubber control didn't seem to function well when I tried to move back and forth through scenes.

(I can't blame Apple. I myself had a very tough time getting through this particular movie.)

The new iPods will be available in October, with pre-orders on the new Touch starting at the end of this week.

I spoke earlier of the importance that Apple puts on the sensual nature of using their products. One of the surprises from Wednesday's event was the first upgrade to the iPhone's earbuds in five years. The new set is called "Earpod," and will be included with the new iPhone and available separately for $29. They're so good that they merit their own review, and because everyone at the event was handed a pair upon exiting, I'll have that review for you shortly.

Apple filled in the rest of their onstage time with some items that aren't big enough to merit their own event. They ran through a demo of iOS 6 -- covering the same ground as the big demo they did at their developers' conference this summer, except in greater detail. It'll be available as a free update for all qualifying devices next week.

Apple's revamped the desktop iTunes client for both Mac and Windows, to make it more of an iOS-style one-window interface and integrate iCloud even further. 60% of all iTunes music purchases are happening on iOS devices, so they also redid the iTunes Store app. All of these iTunes updates will drop in October.

Tim Cook re-took the stage and uttered Apple's basic motivation, besides making their monthly payroll: "Delivering great products makes a real difference in people's lives." And I believe that's how they genuinely think.

At this point I was about to look around my seat for my hat and pack up my iPad, but then was one final surprise item on the agenda: a three-song live performance by Foo Fighters.

Crikey...one of my most favoritest bands. I stopped going to concerts ages ago, citing "Hell is other concertgoers" (Sartre got his original quote wrong because he never tried to see Third Eye Blind). So it's extra special to see a band of this calibre rocking out arena-style in a small theater filled with people who are neither drunk off their butts nor engaged in a competition to be the first to shout "Woooooooo!!!!!!!!" during the quiet bits of every song. I now add Foo Fighters to John Mayer, Tony Bennett, Randy Newman, and U2 on my Apple Live Concert scrapbook.

I even got to meet Taylor Hawkins and Pat Smear in the demo area. Alas, ity happened while I was doing a live phone-in appearance on the This Week In Tech network, so their listeners heard me suddenly say "I'm jostling Foo Fighters!"

Oh, yes...the demo room. This takes us back to Grand Theft iPhone.

After spending a lot of time with the iPhone 5, switching between two or three of the available samples to give other people a crack at them, I took some shots of the new Nano with my iPhone 4S (which became my primary camera; the mini-concert had done a number on my camera battery). When I finished, I slid my iPhone back into the breast pocket of my jacket without even thinking. I do it so often that it's automatic. Need iPhone. Use iPhone. Put iPhone back in pocket.

Except this time, there was already another phone in there.

A shiny phone. A very thin phone.

I pulled this phone out.

It had a long 4" widescreen.

Here's what went through my mind at this point:

"What the ****?"

Followed by

"****", then "****", then "**** **** ****-ity **** **** ****."

Then "I suppose this means I never have to worry about ever getting invited to another Apple media event ever again," and "no, worse: if Apple wanted to get technical about it, this was an actual prosecutable offense."

Followed by -- and I know this doesn't make me look very honest -- "I wonder if I could make it all the way out of the building with this without anybody noticing."

All of this happened within the span of a very panicky 1.7 seconds. That was how long it took me to realize that I was actually holding my prerelease Motorola RAZR M. I'm in the process of testing it out and it was also serving as my emergency WiFi hotspot.

So the demo room was victory on all fronts: I got to inform two Foo Fighters that they have an awesome band, and I didn't go to jail. I score that as a "W" for the day.

And Apple also scores a "W" as well.

A teenager of my acquaintance showed me his new Android phone this summer. "You didn't want an iPhone?" I asked him. "No. That's my dad's phone," he said, in dripping tones. I'm not so far removed from that age that I didn't know exactly what he meant.

So Apple's big iPhone and iPod media event on Wednesday was important on two fronts. First, they needed to continue to move those two lines forward technologically, functionally, and aesthetically. Which they did. But they also had to keep the excitement for Apple design going, and that goal was probably equally important.

Are the iPhone 5's new functional features exciting? Probably not. The big screen and LTE radio have been available on Android phones for more than a year, and the others (faster CPU, better camera, faster WiFi, etc.) are incremental, under-the-hood enhancements to its existing abilities.

The real shot of new energy comes from the iPhone 5's new appearance. It screams out "This isn't the same phone as the one we shipped last year." The iPhone 4S lacked that kind of sensual, seductive difference from its predecessor...which is probably why many people wrongly considered it a minor upgrade.

Ditto for the iPod line. Total physical redesign. iPod Touches are now also available in a range of colors. Even the Shuffle, otherwise untouched, gets new color options.

I imagine that Apple faces the same challenge as Coca-Cola. People love, love, love the product. But how do you keep your fans from from getting bored without changing the very things that made them fall in love with you to begin with? If you're not yet ready to throw out a immensely successful product that's already fully mature and feature-complete, making those products thinner and offering them in more colors is one workable answer.



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