Just five years’ time, and already the tech press is declaring the iPhone era waning. Or more accurately, some elements of the tech press weren’t too thrilled by the iPhone 5 announcement, and the rest fell asleep. Boredom is as contagious as the plague (just ask anyone at CNN). But the claim says a lot more about the tech press than it does about the iPhone.
It was the early summer of 2007. The revolution was set to begin, so my colleagues scrambled to cover all the bases. They set up shop amid the TV cameras and mobile satellite units, in the metropolitan business centers of America. I drove to Columbus, Indiana.
People thought I was nuts, which is often true. But if revolutions are to change everything, everywhere, all at once - if the premiere of the iPhone truly was to transform the lifestyle of an entire people in one day - then the revolution would be also be felt in Columbus, Indiana, population 39,000. “Wow,” said one guy in front of an AT&T store who had been waiting in line since the wee hours of the afternoon. “You’re really from the Internet? Now I know this thing is big!”
The Odd-Numbered Sequels Are Never The Good Ones
My friend and long-time partner-in-crime Carmi Levy is now the most recognized technology analyst on Canadian broadcast media. Whenever a major wave in the history of technology crashes ashore, Carmi is in such high demand that he rises before dawn to appear on morning programs on multiple networks.
Carmi’s initial verdict on yesterday’s iPhone 5 announcement, as published by the Toronto Star this morning, is that the product line may have reached a point where it is no longer revolutionary, and is now sustaining itself though the same process of incremental improvement that every other industrial product goes through - every automobile, every refrigerator, every packing crate.
“Sure, it’s a highly desirable evolution,” Carmi writes, “one that will easily sell millions and further expand Apple’s mobile empire. But Apple doesn’t do well with the evolutionary game: revolution is where Apple ranks supreme. The company is at its best when it creates new markets that didn’t previously exist – think iTunes – or re-thinks existing ones in ways that other vendors simply didn’t get, a la iPad. Simply upping the features list isn’t going to keep Apple light-years ahead of the competition. Outflanking them will.”
The thinking here is that Apple has built its business plan on the execution of revolutions. And Carmi is right to point out the dangers of Apple’s incremental strategy. But Internet headlines - especially the American ones - are published in black-and-white.
So over at Wired, we’re being warned that historically, after the fifth generation of “boring” but meticulous improvements to its products, Apple has been known to actually start making products worse. And by “worse,” Mat Honan appears to mean, “no longer really new.”
“Maybe smartphones themselves are becoming boring,” he writes, just before declaring that he’s seen the future and, on the iPhone scale, it’s fairly dull. At least Nokia’s Windows Phones have an identity now, he says; the iPhone doesn’t even have that any more.
And further down the pike, the fact that Wired declared the iPhone boring becomes a headline in itself. Instant artificial journalism: just add content and poof.
At the Nieman Journalism Lab, even though it published an eight-item bulleted list of new iPhone 5 features (which is better than some tech publications), Joshua Benton proclaimed the new device not really newsworthy. And the fact of its non-newsworthiness became the headline. At the Nieman Journalism Lab.
Here at the back of the AT&T Phone Center Store in Columbus, Indiana on June 29, 2007, folks standing in line call home to tell their families they'll be late for dinner. Take a good look at what they're using.
Hot + Cold <> Cool
As a reporter, I overhear folks talking in restaurants - it’s part of the way I gauge the “buzz” around a topic. Just after the iPhone 4S was released, a fellow sitting at the bar assessed it this way: It’s like going to a strip club and finding out, instead of new, hot girls, they have the same ones you saw yesterday. That image told me more than I possibly needed to know... about the iPhone phenomenon, as well as about the guy at the bar.
Here at ReadWriteWeb, our Dan Rowinski is conducting a poll which casts yesterday’s announcement in baseball terms (if you want to get Dan’s attention, just insert a baseball analogy), and asks you whether Tim Cook and Phil Schiller hit it out of the park. Right now, just under two-thirds of respondents are judging it a double or less, or what my friend Angela Gunn would call a “meh.”
Let’s zoom out for a moment. These are telephones we’re talking about. Telephones, the one industrial product that stand-up comedians in the day lampooned for having less identity than a rock. In America, there was a time when only one company produced telephones for everyone. While that might seem unfair and monopolistic by today’s standards, in the Dark Ages,the general perception was that no other company in its right mind would want to manufacture a telephone.
It is entirely possible for a single company to produce a single line of boring, uninteresting, uninspired, non-innovative products for decades at a time, and all the while be a monolithic, overbearing, calcified colossus that rakes in enough cash to acquire its own country. All that’s needed are a few basic ingredients, all of which are in abundant supply. One: The willingness of lawmakers to sustain the status quo. That’s the one thing America produces in surplus. Two: General, sustained, and cultivated disinterest. This is a product that American media produces with both skill and aplomb. All we need to do is repeat and repeat and repeat the same waves of headlines countless times... well, really six or seven times, before the whole topic becomes muted and colorless. To help you out with this, we’ll actually be glad to tell you when a topic is now uninteresting and thoroughly consumed, when we’re kinda bored by it all, and when things are no longer, to borrow from Paris Hilton’s extensive vocabulary, hot.
With Steve Jobs no longer available to voice his objections, there’s absolutely nothing to stop Apple from following in the footsteps (or, more accurately, footstep) of the Bell System and Western Electric. Ten years from now, the iPhone 15 could be a small, flat device with rounded corners, maybe seven rows of icons instead of five, and a 3D screen whose originality of concept Apple would be contesting in court with Samsung. What would be different about this world is that, on the day of the iPhone 15’s release, there would probably not be live Web TV pictures of a guy at a microphone reading live blogs as they come in over the same Web. (I always knew CBS would be able to inject its TV knowhow into CNET, but I never thought it would be like this.)
The Revolution is Cancelled for Low Ratings
If anything is truly in danger here, it’s the business model of tech media. I know, you’re trembling at the very thought. But for once, let’s be honest: If we were truly in the business of exploring and illuminating technology, which since the dawn of humankind (way, way before 1979) has always been about incremental improvements, then we’d be merrily dissecting the details of yesterday’s announcement and reporting on such things as the accuracy of the new algorithm that improves results in iTunes search, the mechanics of the lens that enables automatic panorama, and the relative ruggedness of the new Micro SIM card in heavy 4G usage areas.
We’d be the ones called boring instead of the products we cover or their manufacturers. That's OK with me. As my friends all know, I’d rather be dull and right.
A good part of the reason the behemoth of the Bell System no longer looms over us, and that telephones are the stuff of headlines today, is because interested journalists in the 1970s and 1980s investigated the pre-established mechanisms, legal entanglements and cultural dynamics that sustained a business model predicated upon lack of innovation. People became interested in these things because journalists became interested. Journalists sparked curiosity.
And now we have a colossal company whose business model is based on innovation itself... controlled innovation. Strategic, decisive, measured, well-delivered change on the company’s own terms. From the vantage point of history, the fact that the step from iPhone 4S to iPhone 5 is as incremental and measured as it is, can be seen as a monumental achievement and a victory for free enterprise.
Think of it: It doesn’t really have to be all that different to be the most desirable thing on the planet.
If no one’s throwing a party, it’s because the tech press has become so jaded by the long lines and dramatic premieres that we have based our own business model around its continuation.
Here’s a news flash: Histrionic iPhone events may not be a permanent engagement. Apple will still be here, though we may not. And that won’t be Apple’s fault. Apple is not our mommy. If we want the more everyday and even mundane affairs of this business to be interesting to you, then we need to poke Pause on our Netflix, get out of bed, and while we’re writing cute headlines, think about taking a moment to add a story to them.
Real technology is less like a strip club and more like history. It’s a non-stop process. The smallest details don't always stay small for long.