Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled following yesterday’s debut of the iPhone 5, two new iPod models, and Apple’s new Lightning connector—amazingly, “reviews” of the new devices are already appearing online after 15-minute hands-on sessions. Perhaps by design, so many small new things were announced during and after the event that it was hard to take a step back and consider the bigger picture.
So that’s what we’re doing here. While only one new iPhone was announced yesterday, the entire iPhone lineup was altered, and the iPod family similarly went though some major shifts. Apple’s press events are designed to focus solely on the positives of its new products, but the reality is always more complex, and deserves to be explored. This editorial provides some insights into what went right and wrong yesterday, as well as how the changes will play out over the next several months.
The iPhone and iPod Families. Despite some complaints that the announcements were overly predictable, Apple’s event was certainly a net positive for the company—particularly for the iPhone family. The highest-end iPhone took several moderate but positive steps forward in technology at last year’s prices, while the now low-end iPhone 4 is about to further expand the number of potential Apple customers: it is the first “free” iPhone available in a CDMA version, say nothing of the first “free” Apple device with a Retina display. Moreover, for only $100 up front, there’s now an extremely capable 16GB iPhone 4S as another alternative. Expect the iPhone lineup, as a whole, to continue growing in popularity at a brisk rate.
On the other hand, the iPod family seems more confused than ever, despite having individual products that would have been dream releases several years ago. Yes, Apple has another seemingly simple pricing matrix with $50 price steps separating almost all of the models and versions. For $49, there’s a familiar iPod shuffle with new colors. For $149, there’s a new iPod nano in the same colors. Then there are iPod touches starting at $199, and somehow still an iPod classic at $249.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Once again, Apple will be actively selling two different iPod touch generations, this time across four different models and four different price points. The iPod nano became more expensive while making another major form factor change, and the latest batch of colors Apple has selected for the iPod touch, nano, and shuffle are oddly faded. Everyone knows that the iPod product line has been in clear and somewhat serious decline; it’s unlikely that these new models will dramatically reverse that trend.
The new iPhone 5. It was almost entirely predictable. Hugely iterative. A little weird-looking at first. And yet the iPhone 5 was unquestionably the most desirable new device Apple demonstrated at the event.
Having sold over 244 million iPhones, Apple has at least 100 million current iPhone users, and most have little desire to switch to Android or another platform. Consequently, Apple has very little risk in releasing predictable upgrades, so long as they’re reliable, respectable steps up from prior versions, and marketed correctly. That’s pretty much what the official iPhone 5 announcement entailed—the bigger screen, LTE support, faster processor, and various software-assisted under-the-hood improvements will be more than enough to satisfy users of prior iPhones. The biggest question is whether Apple has done anything here that will win the next generation of high-end iPhone customers; the answer is “probably not.”
There’s only one obvious turn-off for past customers with the iPhone 5, and that’s the Lightning Connector, discussed further below. Apple can try to spin the Lightning Connector any way it wants, but the reality is that iPhone 5 will be the first major Apple device in years that can’t connect to the thousands of docking accessories previously released for iPods, iPhones, and iPads—or even the simple yet $19 USB cables Apple’s been selling for ages. If there’s no Lightning Adapter in the iPhone 5 package, users will need to wait until October to find out which of their past accessories actually work with the phone—and whether they work fully, or are crippled. Apple is betting that its customers won’t care. Perhaps it’s right.
The seventh-generation iPod nano. On the surface, the new iPod nano sounds like a nano fan’s dream—after a two-year experiment with an iPod shuffle-sized, clip-on body, Apple switched the nano back to a more familiar form factor, halfway between a second-generation iPod nano and an iPod touch. The $149 price point’s a jump from the prior $129 entry level, but it’s still more affordable than the least expensive iPod touch, and it’s a lot smaller, too, while packing Bluetooth for wireless audio purposes. In other words, the nano still has a purpose in Apple’s lineup—it’s a tiny, screened media player. With a bunch of color options.
But does the device really make sense any more? That’s a lot harder to say than we’d initially expected. When the nano shrunk to a size that could be worn on a wrist, adding Bluetooth wireless support would have been ideal for both audio streaming and the prospect of two-way communication with an iPhone or iPad for messaging. Yet as a standalone, low-capacity, app- and game-less media player in an increasingly iPhone- and iPad-dominated world, the nano seems like a poor investment by comparison with the $199 iPod touch. We’re not closed-minded to the possibility that it will grow on us, or become popular solely because it’s mid-priced, but the new nano strikes us as a big question mark right now.
The fifth-generation iPod touch. The story’s different with the new iPod touch, a device that conceptually makes a ton of sense, but just seems to have been priced wrong. Like the new nano, all of the new touch’s concepts seem to make sense when you see them: Apple’s finally switching away from scratchable polished metal backs, offering multiple colors, and giving the iPod touch acceptable front and rear cameras. Moreover, it’s growing a bigger screen, AirPlay Mirroring, and better 3-D graphics for gaming. Yes, it’s a step behind the iPhone 5 in many ways, but not horrendously so—effectively a thinner iPhone 4S.
But if you want the new iPod touch, you’ll need to shell out at least $299, since Apple’s keeping its two-year-old predecessor around as an entry-level model. Those keeping track of iPod touch alternatives will note that $299 is $100 more than the current crop of 7-inch tablets from Apple’s competitors, and that the new model is arriving at a price point that Apple has previously identified as less than mainstream for its pocket media players. There are also the design oddities to consider: the faded metal colors, the not-quite-flush rear camera lens, the white bezels on the units with colored backs, and the extremely unusual “loop” wrist strap button. This doesn’t seem like a slam dunk design for Apple, and in fact goes in a few directions that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
Lightning Connector. We’re not going to make light of its name, or offer a knee-jerk, “sky is falling” reaction to Apple’s decision to replace its ubiquitous 30-pin connector with something new. To be totally fair, Apple has kept the “iPod Connector” around for nine years, a lot longer than expected, and it’s absolutely no shock that it’s putting something smaller in new devices. The problem with Lightning isn’t that it exists, but rather what Apple did and didn’t do with it.
By choosing the “Lightning” name, Apple is implying that the new connector offers greater speed, but it’s apparently not faster—Apple still lists the cables as supporting the same USB 2.0 standard followed by older devices. So what are Lightning’s advantages? It’s smaller and “all digital,” with the promise of greater durability. On the other hand, it apparently loses the ability to transmit analog audio or video signals via the bottom port. This may well break compatibility with hundreds of docking speakers and accessories with video-out capabilities, while requiring more expensive replacements, each with Apple’s seal of approval and Apple-required parts. Apple’s grip on the accessory market, and your wallet, is about to tighten considerably.
Apple won’t sell Lightning Adapters until October, so early iPhone 5 adopters won’t know for sure whether their accessories work properly with the new phone. And the Adapter prices are much higher than expected—$29 each—with new Lightning-specific third-party accessories not expected until later this year, possibly even early 2013. Lightning isn’t a loser of a connector, and Apple has promised on the record that it will be used in devices for years to come, but it’s hard to suggest that it offers any real advantage to users.
What are your thoughts on the iPhone 5, new iPods, and Lightning Connector? We look forward to reading them in the comments section below.