by Larry Magid
There was a time when people got really excited about an Apple announcement. Back when they took place during Macworld Expo, before Apple started hosting its own events, thousands of Apple fans would line up hoping to get in to see Steve Jobs announce the latest product that many would buy the second it became available. And thousands of journalists who cover Apple would gush over every detail of whatever product Jobs had unveiled.
I wasn’t there when Apple announced the original iPhone because I was in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show. But even from 560 miles away, I was glued to the announcement. Despite all the products laid out in front of us at CES, the iPhone was about the only thing any of us tech journalist stuck in Las Vegas talked about that day.
Sure, a lot of people talked about Apple’s iPhone latest announcement on Tuesday, but not with anywhere near the excitement as previous announcements, including even last year’s relatively tepid iPhone 5 unveiling. One of my weather vanes are CBS radio station affiliates around the country who call me for commentary. I got plenty of calls Tuesday, but not nearly as many as for previous Apple announcements and only about half as many as I had the week before when Samsung announced its smartwatch.
But it’s not the number of calls that clued me in to the tepid reaction, but the interviewers’ lack of enthusiasm. The same radio news anchors who were excited about past Apple announcement were ho-hum this time.
Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone 5S has some nice attributes, including a fingerprint reader that could revolutionize the way we not only unlock our phones, but also the way we make purchases. Having to type in a password to authenticate yourself every time you download an app is a pain and it’s even more of a pain when you make online purchases on other apps.
I hope Apple offers an application programming interface (API) to other app developers so that swiping your finger replaces passwords on just about all apps. And kudos to Apple for storing the data necessary to decipher your fingerprints on the phone instead of on its servers, in potential reach of hackers and government agencies.
The other “big deal” about the 5S is its improved camera and, given how many people use their phones to take pictures, that’s obviously an important enhancement. But when it comes to resolution, lens quality and overall camera specifications, Apple still doesn’t have any bragging rights. When I was at the recent IFA trade show in Berlin, I got to play with the superb camera in Sony’s new Xperia Z1 phone that was launched there and, for the past few weeks, I’ve been testing out the Nokia Lumia 1020, an even better camera phone.
Apple’s other new phone — the iPhone 5C — was supposed to be cheap, but is far from it. Here in the United States it will sell for $100 less than the new 5S, which means you can get it for $99 with a two-year contract. But if you want to buy an unlocked phone without a carrier subsidy (and two-year contract), it will cost you $549. Yes, that’s $100 less than the 5S, but it’s still expensive, especially compared to a lot of great Android phones on the market.
In China, where millions of people can’t afford expensive smartphones, it sells for the equivalent of $733 U.S. dollars, which is a lot of money in a country where the average family income is about $2,100 a year, according to a survey from Peking University as reported in The New York Times.
The 5C is colorful. Not only does it come in five colors, but its “beautifully, unapologetically plastic” case (as Apple VP Jony Ive put it in a video shown at the launch event and on Apple’s website) gives it an attractive look and feel. To me that’s only marginally important, but I’m not the market for that phone. My sense is that a lot of people — especially young people — really do care about the styling of their phone as much as my generation cared about the styling and paint jobs of our cars.
What Ive understands is that a phone is a very personal accessory, which, to many, is as important as a handbag or a pair of shoes. Needless to say, I’m not all that enamored with shoes and handbags, either, but I have to give Apple credit for understanding that part of its market.
I think that part of the problem for Apple is that we’ve all become accustomed to great phones and, as an industry matures, it’s harder to amaze and dazzle us. I remember being impressed when the first microwave ovens were introduced, but it’s been decades since I’ve gotten excited about one.
For Apple to amaze us, it has to come out with a new category of products or announce a killer product in an existing category. It did that in 1977 with the Apple II, in 1984 with the Macintosh, in 2001 with the iPod, in 2007 with the iPhone and in 2010 with the iPad. Will 2014 be the magic year, or should we turn our eyes from Cupertino to Seoul to see if Samsung can amaze us?