So. The iPhone 5 has been unveiled and many people—including me—were underwhelmed. Lighter, thinner, new back, (slightly) new color scheme. Just tweaked a little. Like changes to a car model from year to year. To tech observers, this doesn’t seem right. The iPhone 4 came out over two years ago! That’s forever, man!
But I got to thinking. Apple doesn’t change the outward design of any of their product lines much. The basic form factor of the iMac hasn’t changed since it went Intel in 2006. The first year it was polycarbonate plastic; in 2007 it went aluminum, and it’s stayed aluminum since. How about the Macbook Pro? It went “unibody” in 2008 and pretty much hasn’t changed since. The Air came out in 2008, too, and aesthetically it hasn’t changed a whit. (And we won’t even talk about the Mac Pro.)
Apple’s current design language was settled by 2007; we’re going on seven years with little deviation from aluminum and black glass. Generally when a product makes a change—from the original Mac mini design to the current one, or from the iPhone 3G/3GS to the iPhone 4/4S/5—it’s to move closer to that look.
Seven years! Madness! What other company picks a look and sticks with it for that long?
Well, every company that makes a product that looks “classic.”
These products have a design language that’s become part of their brand identity. That language is not only important to the companies, it’s important to their customers. When you go to a Mustang show—and think about the fact that there are Mustang shows—you’ll see few if any cars from the 1980s, when Ford abandoned the Mustang design language and made cars that, well, didn’t look like Mustangs.
That’s what Apple wants, too: products that look like Apple. They’ve nailed it. You can look at a computer or a tablet or a phone being used in a coffee shop and you can immediately tell Apple or not Apple even if you can’t see the logo. And this is virtually unique in their industry: you’ll usually need the logo to know exactly what the not Apple product is.
This is why trade dress battles are so important to Apple. Try introducing a soda in a container that’s easily mistaken for a Coke bottle and see how far “har har har, you can’t patent curved glass!” gets you as a defense. If somebody makes a product that can be easily mistaken for an Apple device, then Apple is going to do whatever they can to get that product either off the market or changed. And this is why Josh Topolsky is wrong when he says it doesn’t matter if a reviewer fails to mention when a competitor makes a product which is clearly following Apple’s design language. This isn’t about individual features and who did what first. If a company consciously attempts to make you think is that the new Apple thing? when you look at their new thing, and you know that’s what they’re doing, it’s noteworthy. It’s noteworthy because it’s a little sleazy.1
So. Would I still like the iPhone 5 to be a bit “more”? Maybe. The iPhone 5’s 1136×640 resolution is the same aspect ratio as the 1280×720 of the “bigger” phones, with just 20% fewer pixels; Apple could certainly make a bigger iPhone that was distinctively iPhone, they just don’t want to. For in-car GPS navigation I’d like something bigger, but for my other uses, it’d mostly be a wash. Do phone consumers want bigger displays, as Andy Ihnatko argues? When I talked to an AT&T salesman yesterday, he said that the top three phones being sold were, in order, the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 4, and the iPhone 3GS. Given that the iPhone 5 sold out its pre-orders in record time, it looks to me like a lot of people would rather have a 4″ iPhone than 4.5″ anything else.
So next year, Phil Schiller will get back on stage and enthuse about how they’re introducing a new whatever that absolutely! redefines! everything! magical! woo! and he’ll hold up a new whatever that looks very, very much like the whatever it’s replacing, and we will all sigh faintly and shake our heads and bitch about the hype cycle and wonder if Apple is losing their touch because they’re no longer radical. And Apple will, more than likely, sell record numbers of new whatevers. Apple isn’t radical—not in the way that the tech industry is used to defining the term. Their idea of radical is to define every market they’re in: not through feature checklists, not through price, but through being iconic.
Of course, when Apple takes significant features from other people’s products—like iOS 5’s notifications, which are blatantly based on Android’s—everybody talks about it. Even so, I can’t think of a single product as a whole that Apple has ever introduced with the obvious intent of making consumers think it’s “just like” another company’s product. ↩