As Apple introduces the latest generation of its iPhone this week, it’s important to put the company’s flagship device in perspective as just another smartphone in a crowded marketplace.
Long gone are the days when the iPhone exemplified the cutting edge in mobile computing. Now it’s well matched by competing products from other companies like Samsung and Nokia.
Even the iPhone’s long-vaunted iTunes media ecosystem isn’t as unique as it once was. Until just a couple years ago iTunes was the best way to buy movies or music on a mobile device.
No more. Superior competing services like Rdio, Netflix, and Amazon Prime have vaulted past Apple’s languishing media platform.
That leaves apps. Apple invented the concept of the mobile “app” and made it easy to install and use them. The iPhone remains app nirvana, but Apple is at risk of ceding leadership here too.
Whereas once “there’s an app for that” referred to just the iPhone, it now applies to all platforms, almost equally.
Google’s Android is catching up in terms of the variety (if not quality) of apps available. Windows Phone is also gaining momentum. Neither quite matches the offerings for iPhone, but they’re getting there.
So it’s critically important that Apple retain its lead in apps.
Because today, much to Apple’s chagrin, a smartphone is a smartphone is a smartphone is a smartphone.
Apps are what differentiate these devices in our minds more than any one’s device’s design or technology.
Despite its eroding visual identity, however, the iPhone is still the overall best smartphone investment one can make. But not for the cool, sexy reasons Apple promotes.
The iPhone’s true value is much more mundane.
Like its unique longevity.
The average lifespan of an Android device, such as those from Samsung and HTC, is less than a year. That’s not to say these devices break or self destruct suddenly. No, it’s just the average timespan that a device can be upgraded with new Android operating systems.
After that, defunct.
With Windows phones, such as the new Nokia Lumias, it’s even worse. I bought a Samsung-made Windows Phone last year and, despite my best efforts, it has never once received a software update – even though dozens have been released since then.
iPhones, on the other hand, last years.
I know people who will happily upgrade their 3-year-old iPhone 3GSs with the new version of the iPhone operating system next week. That long term of support for a device is unprecedented in the mobile industry.
Then there’s portability. I mean that in terms of being able to use your device on a carrier network of your choice.
A “locked” phone will only operate on one mobile carrier’s network, and you are subject to their roaming tariffs whenever you travel.
You typically end up with a locked device when you purchase your phone directly from a service provider like Bell or Latitude.
An “unlocked” phone, on the other hand, can be used on any compatible network around the world, so you can always seek out the cheapest rates available. Locally speaking, you can switch from one carrier to another, say from Bell to Telus, on a whim.
It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to purchase an Android or Windows Phone device that isn’t locked to a specific carrier’s network.
An unlocked iPhone, however, can be acquired at any Apple Store or directly from the company online.
(Keep in mind, though, that if you buy your iPhone from a carrier, it’ll be locked.)
Then there’s the interdependent matters of compatibility and consistency.
In part this refers to apps you can download and install. If there’s an iPhone app, it works on all iPhones. That’s because the technology in iPhones has remained remarkably consistent from one generation to the next.
Meanwhile, an Android app will only work on some Android phones. And if you upgrade your device, there’s no guarantee that the apps you used on your old phone will work on your new one.
That’s because of the lack of technical consistency among the plethora of Android devices and Google’s own fast-paced rate of change with Android itself.
If a long device lifespan, portability and compatibility aren’t your key concerns, though, one smartphone it much like another these days. I include the new iPhone in that statement.
The iPhone redefined our understanding of mobile communication when it was introduced 5 years ago. There was nothing that compared to it back then.
That’s not the case anymore. The pack has caught up (granted, largely by ripping off Apple’s ingenuity). And considering the conservative, careful approach Apple is taking with its iPhone upgrades, there’s no certainty that Apple can remain in a leadership position for five more years.
All the same, like I said, the iPhone still rules the roost. For now.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, September 14, 2012.