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Is iPhone 5 Enough?

by Mark W. Hibben
9/13/12

Is it Enough Phone to Excite Consumers and Grow Market Share?

Don’t get me wrong.  I already love the phone and can’t wait to take ownership of the sleek black and slate model.  But I still find myself wondering if iPhone 5 will be enough to restore the pre-eminence in the smart phone market that was once Apple’s alone.  In the face of competing Android and Windows 8 phones, iPhone 5 must do and be so much more than previous generations of iPhone.  In this article I’ll examine the new iPhone and these questions in more detail, as a prelude to my upcoming review.

The Hardware

The design of the iP5 hardware represents an evolutionary approach by Apple to its flagship product and retains a familiar appearance.  The screen is a good example of this evolutionary approach.  At 1136 x 640 pixels, the screen (in portrait orientation) has exactly the same pixel width as the iP4x generations.  Apple management seem to feel they’ve hit the sweet spot in the width of the phone and were willing only to increase the overall length of device by about a centimeter with a proportional increase in the screen pixel height from the 960 pixels of the iP4x.  The diagonal size of 4 inches is smaller than many competing Android devices, so Apple is betting that bigger doesn’t necessarily equal better in the eyes of consumers.  They have a point, of course, but I suspect that screen size is just one of many preferences that vary considerably among consumers.  I was a little disappointed that the screen design didn’t simply go to the standard HD format of 720p (1280 x 720 pixels), and I suspect there are many others who feel the same. 

I’ve held the Google Galaxy Nexus in my hand and didn’t find it in the least uncomfortable, but then, I have big hands.  My point here is that there is no one right answer when it comes to screen size or phone size, and the lack of variety in portrait mode width of Apple’s phones may simply force some consumers to look elsewhere. 

The real bright spot of the iP5 design is the redesigned case, which completely abandons the approach of the iP4x generation.  Gone is the Gorilla glass back, which virtually mandated a protective cover.  Also gone is the heavy stainless steel external frame.  Apple has wisely gone with the approach that works so well on their laptops, a machined aluminum unibody case/frame that wraps around the glass screen front.   As a result, the new iPhone is 18% thinner and 20% lighter than its predecessor.  Most of the back is now aluminum, except for glass inlays at the top and bottom.  The inlays are matched so precisely that the phone gives the impression of having been machined from a solid block of unobtainium.  It’s not clear what the purpose of the inlays is, but they may be more than decorative, and may serve as electromagnetically transparent windows for internal WiFi or Bluetooth antennas.  It’s not at all clear what the antenna configuration is for the new phone, but we can be sure that the design was thoroughly vetted given Apple’s unfortunate antenna problems with iP4.  I suspect that the entire exterior aluminum case serves as the principal cellular antenna. 

Also much improved are the cameras of the new iPhone.  The main back-facing iSight camera features an 8 Mpix backside illuminated sensor married to a 5 element auto-focus lens system.  Protecting the lens is a sapphire crystal plate that should go far towards reducing light flare due to scratches in the lens cover.  More than anything else, this problem has tended to limit the quality of phone camera images, and I’m glad to see Apple come up with a viable solution.  Short of diamond, Apple couldn’t have used a harder, more scratch resistant material. 

The new iSight camera supports the same 1080p HD video at 30 frames/sec, but I expect it to perform considerably better than iP4s due to superior optics, sensor, and image processing.  The front facing FaceTime camera also got an upgrade and is now FaceTime HD capable, which means 720p image resolution rather than the rather coarse 640 x 480 resolution of standard FaceTime.

As was widely expected, Apple did endow the iP5 with fourth generation LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless technology.   This was so essential for the new iPhone that only not having it would have been significant.  LTE offers those who live in the right service areas download speeds of up to 100Mbps, better than many home wired Internet connections.  LTE will be offered in all three of the versions of the iPhone 5 in the U.S.: the two GSM phones for Sprint and AT&T and the CDMA phone for Verizon. 

Perhaps the most important change in the hardware design is one that most consumers will care least about, the use of the new Apple A6 processor.  The new processor should bench-test to about twice as fast as the iP4s, but recall that the 4s was clocked at 800 MHz, so a 1.6 GHz processor in the iP5 will account for the performance improvement.  The big accomplishment is being able to achieve this clock rate without an impact on battery life.  The emerging consensus seems to be that the A6 is based on the latest ARM Cortex A15 dual core processor announced by Samsung in November 2011.  This would make sense for a number of reasons.  The timing is about right.  Samsung was to have begun production of their own A15 based Exynos SOC about now, and Samsung has traditionally given Apple first dibs on processor production, since Apple sells a lot more Samsung made SOCs than anyone else, including Samsung.  The rated processor clock rate and performance improvement are also about right, since ARM specs the A15 at up to 2.0 GHz.  If the consensus is correct, Apple would have brought to market the first A15 based SOC.  Undoubtedly, outfits such as Chipworks will want to take a look at the A6 processor as soon as they become available. 

Although the A6 will go largely unnoticed, its impact will be felt in almost every aspect of system performance.  Streaming video will be clearer with fewer compression artifacts.  Camera images will process faster and be of higher quality.  Even phone calls will be clearer.  The A6 will reinforce the user’s impression of the iP5 as a best-in-class device.

The Software

iP5 comes with iOS 6, the latest iteration of Apple’s mobile operating system.  This was previewed extensively at WWDC back in June, so it didn’t get much attention at the iPhone 5 event.  iOS 6 is good, but it seems the most evolutionary of the major iOS releases.  After all, iOS 5 brought us iCloud, which really was revolutionary.  iOS 6 is more about refinements both visible and under-the-hood.  Siri will be more widely available, and Apple maps will replace Google maps (this really could turn out to be significant from a business standpoint), and Safari and iTunes will get refreshed.  My most welcome change will be Do Not Disturb, a feature that affords blessed, if temporary, relief from inconveniently timed calls, email, Notifications, and iMessages.

As good as iOS is, it does seem that the pace of innovation in iOS is slower than in Apple’s competing mobile operating systems.  Both Android and Windows 8 have much more interactive and lively home screens.  Yeah, Apple’s static app icons are intuitive and simple, but aren’t they getting a little boring?  Apple had such a huge OS lead even a year ago, but it now seems to be dwindling.

In apps, both number and quality, Apple’s lead still appears solid, if somewhat reduced.  No one else has anything like iLife and iWork for both their desktop and mobile platforms, or the ability to share documents so seamlessly between devices and platforms (now that Mountain Lion is here).  But undoubtedly Microsoft will mount a challenge to this supremacy with Windows 8, and Google will continue to refine its cloud-based apps. 

Is it Enough?

As good as iPhone 5 is, it’s clearly an evolutionary rather than revolutionary product.  Under Tim Cook’s leadership, Apple have become very risk-averse, and this is very apparent in the new phone: it’s better, but familiar.  As I have pointed out in previous articles (see our recent Tech Brief on smart phone market share), Apple’s share of the global smart phone market continues to dwindle.  As good as the iPhone 5 is, I expect it to reverse this trend in the near term.  iPhone 5 will be enormously popular in the final calendar quarter of the year.  For the long term, I have my doubts.  Arresting the market share momentum of Android may be more than even a great iPhone can achieve. Something more needs to happen. 

Apple’s market share problem really isn’t the phone.  The problem is variety and consumer choice.  Apple’s iPod line provides an existence proof that offering consumers significant choice can preserve market share.  Apple has faced significant challenges from all sides to its dominance of the mobile media player market and has successfully held off those challenges.  iPod still held a 70% market share, according to Apple as of their January 2012 earnings conference call.  And it’s been a long time since Apple offered a Jobs-anointed Chosen iPod that Apple proclaimed was “the best they could make” and the only iPod they wanted to make.  Even now, there are three different iPods with dramatically different form factors and price points, two of which are new models just introduced at the iP5 event.  And Apple doesn’t try to offer last year’s iPod models as the only alternative to the Chosen iPod.  In contrast to its dominance in the portable music player market, in Q2 2012 Apple had a 16.9% share of the global smart phone market, as opposed to Android’s 68% according to IDC.  This is down from the 18.8% market share Apple had in Q2 2011. 

Why is it so hard for Apple management to heed the lesson of their own iPod experience?  There is some evidence that Apple management are moving, however glacially, in the direction of further diversifying their iOS product line.  Rumors of the new “mini” iPad abound, and these appear credible.  So Apple is taking the first tentative steps towards greater diversification, and will undoubtedly watch very closely how the mini iPad is received.  But the industry is moving so rapidly that tentative may not cut it.  Apple management need to take some risks, again. 

  • 1. iPhone 5 Hardware
  • 2. A Redesigned Case
  • 3. Improved Cameras, Faster CPU
  • 4. The Software
  • 5. Is it Enough?
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