Sunday 23 October 2016

Adrian Weckler: Apple eagerly seeking new 'wow!' moments

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Apple, under Tim Cook, has done a remarkable job in widening the company's distribution and retail penetration over the last five years, especially in Asia Picture: REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
Apple, under Tim Cook, has done a remarkable job in widening the company's distribution and retail penetration over the last five years, especially in Asia Picture: REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Is Apple's magic tech dust finally hitting a ceiling? Is it possible that the world's biggest tech company is no longer capturing everyone's imagination with its iPhone launches? Or is it settling into an era of solid but unspectacular product iterations?

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I was in San Francisco last week when Tim Cook held up the iPhone 7. I got to play with it afterwards, too.

The Plus model is something special (and controversial), with its new double-lens camera system and lack of traditional earphone port.

But aside from the improvements, you could say that this year's mega launch lacked an individual 'wow' moment of the calibre witnessed in previous years.

There was no 'One Last Thing' climax, dazzling the audience with a new gadget to rule the world.

And on the smaller, single-lens iPhone 7, there may not even be quite enough on offer for people to rush out and get one unless their own phone is old and needs replacing anyway. (Though don't underestimate the consumer appeal of colours as a hit feature: there's a new glossy black version of the iPhone 7 which could yet prove to be an unexpected sales driver.)

So the queues we're used to seeing outside shops when the device actually goes on sale may not be as long as in previous years, if they're there at all.

This is not to say that the iPhone 7 isn't worth getting. For me, the camera upgrade on the iPhone 7 Plus is a big deal: I think it will have a more significant effect on ordinary people's lives (through better photos of friends, family and events) than is being talked about. I also think that Apple is on the right side of history in ditching the 3.5mm earphone port, especially given the arrival of voice-activated commands. (For more on my hands-on impressions of the new iPhone, see

But last week's launches - Apple also unveiled an upgraded Watch, new 'Airpod' wireless earphones and some software enhancements - won't go down as one of the tech industry's big disruptive moments.

What does this say, if anything, about Apple? Is it finally starting to lose its agenda-setting mojo?

Apple, under Cook, has done a remarkable job in widening the company's distribution and retail penetration over the last five years, especially in Asia. And that has not happened without consistently having a very strong product to lead its commercial charge.

But it arguably hasn't had an era-defining breakthrough product moment since 2010, when it launched the iPad. Its Watch, a product I quite like, was supposed to be that breakthrough product when it was launched two years ago. But it hasn't yet caught the world's imagination in the way the company hoped. Apple Pay, the company's contactless payment system, which has not yet made it to Ireland, has similarly yet to penetrate a mass audience.

Is this evidence that Apple is running out of innovative steam?

Those in the know say this isn't the case. The company, it is widely reported, is working on a number of new product categories. The most ambitious of them is a car. If industry trends suggest anything, it is that this may be timed to coincide with a major transition in car technology from manual-driving petrol machines to self-driving electric ones.

The latest reports - obviously unconfirmed by Apple - indicate that Apple's own timeline for this may be pushed out beyond 2020 given the project's huge engineering and design requirements.

Other products reportedly being worked on by Apple include a virtual reality headset to capitalise on the early market cumulatively created by Facebook-owned Oculus, Sony, HTC and Samsung.

And then there's the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone coming next year - supply-chain rumours suggest that Apple may be planning a radical new casing design for the iPhone that will push it past the advanced standard recently set by Samsung with its Note 7 curved glass format.

Whether or not any or all of these come to fruition successfully, pursuing them probably indicates that Apple is still interested in setting the pace for a wider range of electronics and everyday hardware devices in our future.

Furthermore, whatever criticisms there may be about a lack of adventure in its latest iPhone, Apple will undoubtedly continue to do well with it. Its customer loyalty is not based on any fad or marketing sleight-of-hand. By and large, people who have its products - including the iPhone - like them more than users of any rival devices.

Even if analysis from Citigroup shows that we're upgrading our phones less often now (every 30 months compared to every 24 months in 2011), iPhone users haven't switched much to Android-based Samsungs or Huaweis before and they probably won't now.

This is because none of these competitors have really set the world alight themselves.

Indeed, you could say the same for the wider tech and electronics sector: try to think of a unique tech gadget that has been a genuine breakthrough in your life over the last five years and you'll struggle. The nearest we have come is the early stage development of autonomous, self-driving cars.

So people probably won't give up their iPhones. The company may not be first with individual bits of new technology (like a dual-lens camera or curved glass, reportedly to be introduced in next year's model), but it does a better job than anyone else of making these features easy, reliable and compelling to use.

As such, Apple's phones still hold the keys to changes in our lives through the photos we take and the social apps we now use.

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