The Null Device

By “Innovation” Only

Another Apple Event™, this time the annual iPhone/iPad one. And out comes Tim Cook, announcing that they're foregoing the traditional feel-good videos and plunging right in, as today's event will be “truly big”; followed by an hour and a half of mostly incremental improvements. Oh, and a pay-TV platform that looks like an Onionesque parody of the Netflix/HBO/Amazon high-concept event-serial genre.

The good news is that it won't have a huge impact on one's credit card, as there are no must-haves. Everything's slightly nicer, and the top-end iPhone takes better pictures than any other iPhone, though nothing's compelling. (Apple themselves quoted a report from last year saying that the A12 processor in the iPhone XS will be ahead of Android devices for two years, which means that my XS still has one year of non-obsolescence left.)

For what it's worth, three things I would have liked to have seen announced at an Apple device event:

  1. The ability to use the NFC transceiver in the Apple Watch (and iPhone) for arbitrary non-payment-card applications; allowing things like putting public transport cards, library cards, locker keys and such on one's watch. The convenience of being able to board buses or enter/exit Tube stations without getting my wallet out is one thing I miss about London (which achieves this by tapping into the payment-card network with its system). (IIRC, Apple have said that they keep the NFC chip under tight control because of security considerations. Perhaps an acceptable compromise would be for Apple to closely vet all applications with NFC entitlements, with their security engineers going through the NFC-adjacent code with a fine-toothed comb, as they do some other apps with elevated security permissions. This would be fine; after all, it's not like every developer and their dog would be putting this functionality into their apps.)
  2. An iPhone with the capabilities equivalent to the iPhone XS or similar (decent cameras, reasonable battery life, at least 256Gb storage maximum), but in an iPhone 5-sized form factor. Being able to use a phone one-handed without precariously crowd-surfing it on one's fingertips to reach the top of the screen would be nice. If they made it thicker to accommodate the battery and Flash storage, that would not be a problem either; besides, IMHO, the bevelled edge of the iPhone 4 and 5 did look more stylish than the generic roundedness of the iPhone 6 and subsequent models.
  3. In terms of pro photographic products: an iOS (or iPad OS) device with a decent-sized sensor (at least Micro ⁴⁄₃, if not full-frame), with a decent optical zoom lens that's f/1.8 or better, or, even better, an interchangeable lens mount; thus giving you the advantages of a full-sized sensor and lens (and the laws of physics say that, however good phone-sized sensors get, they'll always be handicapped by their size) with Apple's computational photography and the iOS photographic app ecosystem. Of course, it will probably be a cold day in Hell before Apple put something like this out; it may be more likely that several incumbent camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, mindful of phones biting into their market share, get together to launch a computational-photography application platform, complete with interchangeable APIs and app stores, allowing photographic app developers to get their apps running on real cameras. Or maybe not.
So, not the most exciting Apple Event, by all accounts; credit cards are staying firmly in wallets, as the last year's devices prove to be good enough, which will undoubtedly bring out the pundits decrying Apple having lost their way and stopped innovating; at best, they're coasting on inertia from the Jobs years, their lucrative App Store monopoly and iMessage blue-bubble lock-in, and at worst, it's time to dump your AAPL shares while they're still worth something. Which, as humdrum as today's spec-bump update was, is not entirely true. Apple are pushing out some dramatic innovations this year, though they're mostly at the technical level, and were discussed in this year's WWDC. (For one, the user interface framework used for developing iOS apps, which dates back to the iPhone 1.0 and stands on the 1980s Smalltalk-inspired foundations of NeXTSTEP, is being replaced by a set of new, declarative framework named SwiftUI and Combine, which takes extensively from the functional-reactive programming world; these framework will be unified across all Apple platforms, including macOS and WatchOS, allowing apps' codebases to not only be simpler but shared across platforms which would have been too different until now. This, however, is harder to convey in a device event than a 3-camera bump or a new colour option of “Midnight Green”.)

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