On September 10, Apple will announce its latest round of updates, including the much-discussed iPhone 5S. Unfortunately, rumors suggest that Ashton Kutcher’s rotten impression of the late Steve Jobs might be a more exciting attempt than CEO Tim Cook’s. Jobs once said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower,” so it’s only appropriate that the biopic accompanies Apple’s latest big idea: a new color.
Apple will be praying that consumers start seeing the world of smartphones through gold-colored glasses, but I’d advise them to hold off on breaking out the actual champagne. Speaking of glasses, something tells me Jobs would be rolling in his grave if he knew that another company has started to “think different” (very, very different) about user technology, while his brainchild is taking the same model and doing some redecorating.
No one disputes that Apple maintains a solid market position for the foreseeable future. Although it’s true that Google’s Android has made some real headway, Apple still enjoys its revenue monopoly on iOS devices, while a variety of companies like Samsung and HTC have to fight for the biggest slice of the Droid hardware pie. One of the oldest criticisms of Apple is that their products are for those who value image over utility, but the iPhone has been the device of choice for business users ever since Crackberry addicts started kicking the habit. The iPhone also unequivocally dominates popular culture; A friend recently admitted to me that she can’t help but judge a texter whose messages come in lame-green instead of iMessage-blue. At the end of the day, I’m sure plenty of people will want to show off their flashy golden toy.
Here’s my problem: A side-by-side comparison of every iPhone model to date is even more underwhelming than Kutcher’s acting chops. Sure, it may be a little sexier and have a hotter engine under the hood, but would those changes have satisfied Steve Jobs? When he unveiled that first iPhone, he revolutionized our entire concept of what a phone is even supposed to be, much less how it looks. In my view, Apple’s saving grace over the last six years has been their outsourcing (and no, I’m not talking about their nightmare factories in China). The explosion of apps has allowed most of the real innovation to be done by third-party developers like Instagram, Snapchat, and Tinder. Those guys are the talk of the town these days — not Apple itself — and they’re all available on the Droid platform, along with a virtually equal supply of apps.
And what about Google Glass? Sure, it may seem ridiculous at first glance, but it’s already gotten the geek-is-chic endorsement from big-time celebrities, and when I rode an elevator in Washington, D.C., with a real-life user, I didn’t even notice it until someone else pointed it out. Although I don’t believe they’ll sell millions of this particular model, I do believe it’s a sign of things to come. It might be five years from now, but I would bet my life that the touch screen rectangle will eventually become as obsolete as the phone booth.
So how long can the reign of Apple last? Well, history repeats itself, and the history of technology is clear: Reinvent, or die. Bear with my hyperbole for a moment. Let’s look at another of the best-selling phones of all time, the Motorola Razr. From 2004 to 2007, the Razr was the coolest clamshell on the block. It was fashionably iconic, and I remember feeling lame for not having one. Motorola’s gameplan sounds eerily familiar in retrospect — making incremental updates to the look and relying on the name. In May 2007, their CEO stated, “When I reach for a tissue, I grab a Kleenex. When I order a soda, I say I want a Coke. And even when I talk about an MP3 [player], I call it an iPod. The Razr is also a brand, and we will market that for years to come.”
It turns out there was a certain newcomer on the scene that year. Just like Glass, it had plenty of skeptics. Some people thought it would be too expensive or that its design was too strange and different. They were wrong. A few months later, the Razr was toast, because that weird new device became pretty damn popular.
Fast forward six years, and now the iPhone is the one trying to pull a Walter White: “Say my name.”