“Over the past decade, we’ve pushed forth with innovation, after innovation, after innovation,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said as he described the 10-year history of the iPhone in Apple’s brand-new Steve Jobs theater, at its new Apple Park headquarters in California.
He was right. More than any other company, Apple has defined the modern smartphone. It pulled the rug out from companies like BlackBerry and Nokia in 2007, and has added new features like clockwork each year. Despite a lot of competition, Apple is still the manufacturer that makes big smartphone ideas work.
That brings us to 2017 and the iPhone X, a phone that scans your face, wirelessly charges, and has a screen that curves around every inch of its own glossy, glass face. Apple didn’t invent most of the tech in the X, but it’s already poised to become the standard bearer for them. Cook claimed that this new iPhone will set the pace for the decade ahead. It’s hard to argue with him.
Apple’s magic sauce is that it doesn’t let competition get under its skin.
Perhaps Apple’s magic sauce is that it doesn’t let competition get under its skin. It’s choosey about the tech innovations it picks for devices like the iPhone X, and artfully creates use cases for them. But as expertly crafted as Apple products are, the company often waits two or more years to unveil a truly new product design.
On paper, beating Apple looks easy; yet no company seems able to do it. Instead of Android phone makers speeding up Apple, they now follow its slow, plodding pace of innovation. Though they’d never admit it, rivals have slowly grown to mirror Apple’s design philosophies throughout the years. They even present flagship devices in grand, elaborate press conferences, like Apple. But no matter how showy competitors get, or how many more pixels they pack in a screen, they have yet to meaningfully leap ahead.
A lot of companies could have built the iPhone X. The tech was out there, but Apple was somehow the company that put it all together into a beautiful, easy-to-use package. Why? After a decade of smartphones orbiting around Apple, why haven’t other device makers really stepped up and eclipsed it?
Samsung could have made the iPhone X
Take Samsung, for example. Why didn’t Samsung, Apple’s biggest smartphone competitor, debut a screen that filled up every corner of one of its Galaxy phones? It had the technology. Samsung is the company manufacturing Apple’s new OLED iPhone X screen, which curves around and takes up the entire front face of the phone, top to bottom. Somehow, it hasn’t pulled off this trick on its own phones. It got close with the Galaxy S8 and Note 8 with their horizontally edge-to-edge screens, but those displays don’t stretch all the way from the top to bottom of the face. (Andy Rubin’s Essential phone screen was also a near miss.)
Apple’s screen gives you an actual ‘wow’ moment when you look at it. The screen is everywhere. It looks almost magical. The edges on the iPhone X screen are so rounded that they look like science fiction at first glance, and the curved cutout for the camera up top only enhances the effect.
But it’s not like the technology for edge-to-edge screens is new. We were reviewing Sharp phones in 2014 with similar “bezel-less” technology, and many Android manufacturers — including Xiaomi and Samsung — have virtually no bezels on the sides of their phones. Apple just took it a step further. It shaved off more of the corners and pushed the screen right up to the top and bottom. By going that extra distance – taking it to the limit — Apple really set the iPhone X apart.
Samsung has taken it to the limit too, at times. Its biggest successes have come from bold stances it took and stuck with, like its curved edge screens or the Galaxy Note line, which made big phones desirable. The Note line popularized the word ‘phablet’ and led to enough market change that even Apple had to react to it by making a Plus-size iPhone. Sadly, Samsung’s focus and discipline can waver when competition gets stiff. At times in the last decade, it has shifted direction with its devices, or hasn’t implemented features as seamlessly as it could. For a while, it even relentlessly shotgunned devices out, not putting its true weight behind ideas. These days, Samsung is a clear leader among Android devices, but its flight path is very similar to Apple’s own.
Apple creates fun reasons for features to exist
Let’s go back to the iPhone X. It shouldn’t be the phone that makes facial recognition a thing on smartphones, but it will get the credit for popularizing the feature. Samsung debuted an ‘Iris Scanner’ last year and also added facial recognition, but it didn’t put its weight behind these features or perfect them enough. The Galaxy S8 Iris Scanner was fooled by a simple photograph, as was its facial recognition. And they were treated like added — not essential — features. Unlike Apple, Samsung kept its fingerprint sensor, but moved it tragically close to the S8’s rear camera.
Apple’s iPhone X Face ID looks a lot simpler to use. It also showed how much thought was put into the feature by specifically spelling out how photographs, masks, and other tricks won’t fool its 3D depth-sensing cameras. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, but judging from Apple’s track record, Face ID will probably work as advertised.
The tech has floated around for years, yet only Apple spent the time to nail it.
Facial recognition tech has floated around for years, yet only Apple spent the time to nail it. All it had to do was show us how Face ID makes the iPhone more secure and easier to use. Now even I can’t wait to use it. As a bonus, Apple even added facial-tracking Animojis using the underlying technology. Yet another small delight that came from Face ID.
Apple played the same game with Touch ID fingerprint sensors in 2013. Fingerprint sensors fluttered around in laptops and some phones, like the Moto Atrix and old Windows Mobile devices, for years. Apple made them essential by stuffing one into the iPhone 5S and every iPhone/iPad since. It gave the tech two thought-out purposes (unlocking and buying things) and integrated it deeply into the iPhone, just as it’s done with Face ID. Within a month of Touch ID debuting, HTC had a phone with a crappier, insecure fingerprint sensor, and Samsung sloppily added the feature to its next flagship phone (the Galaxy S5). Somehow, neither of them took the time to make it work for their users.
The iPhone X also added wireless charging, a ‘meh’ feature Samsung and select phone makers have included for years, but it’s upping the ante, releasing a single wireless charging pad that you can plop a couple iPhones and Apple Watches down on, eliminating the mess of cords you may have on your nightstand or desk.
Finally, look back at the double rear cameras that debuted on the iPhone 7 Plus — another feature many devices have. LG at least tried to make its dual cameras useful by enabling wide angle shots, but only Apple thought to include a beautiful, simple background blurring ‘bokeh’ effect for portraits and use the second camera to let users 2x optical zoom. There is now a real benefit to the camera on the iPhone 7 Plus, and a story to tell. It’s sad that only Apple succeeded in giving that second camera meaning and purpose.
All Apple does is give these technologies useful, thought-out purposes. Why is that such a hard thing for competitors to pick up on?
A graveyard of good ideas
Apple’s competitors have given up on many promising ideas because they didn’t boost quarterly profits fast enough or work out immediately. Modular phone designs, LG’s G5 mods and “Friends,” HTC’s amazing Boomsound speakers, Nokia’s incredible 41-megapixel camera … these are just a few game-changing features that sunk because they weren’t part of a fantastic overall package or weren’t given a use case where they could shine.
You could fill a graveyard with all the tablets and smartwatches that tried to compete with the iPad and Apple Watch. Android makers knew Apple was making a watch for four years before it came out, and began releasing them more than a year before it, yet they still struggle to showcase the appeal of a smartwatch. Meanwhile, Apple’s Watch is now the top selling wristwatch in the world.
Did Apple also have to be the first major tech company to introduce fully wireless, working earbuds (AirPods)? The tech was there, but only Apple put in the time to make it work and focus on it. It was even willing to eliminate its own audio jack on the iPhone 7 to push this, and other innovations, forward – despite blowback from its own users. And it stuck with its decision. There are no audio jacks on the iPhone 8 or iPhone X phones this year. That commitment has given it an 85 percent market share in the growing wireless headphone market a year later, and hasn’t impacted iPhone sales much, if at all.
It’s baffling that no iPhone competitors have figured out a long-term vision strong enough to give Apple a run for its money.
Companies can beat Apple, if they stop playing by its rules
Apple isn’t invincible, though. There are cracks in its armor. Just look at Spotify, which is the reason Apple Music exists, or Amazon’s Echo smart speaker, which has become so popular that Apple plans to counter it with a late-to-the-game HomePod speaker. Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is slowly becoming ubiquitous while Siri, the smart assistant that started it all, is fading away, directionless. With Alexa, Amazon pulled an Apple, and we’re all winning because of it. Apple is likely working on much-needed upgrades to its voice assistant in response, which will benefit everyone.
Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is slowly becoming ubiquitous while Siri, the smart assistant that started it all, is fading away, directionless.
Amazon is quickly becoming a powerful voice in devices, and is beginning to shape the smart home of the future. It’s not wasting time kicking rocks around, waiting for Apple to show how its done and popularize it. It’s showing leadership, commitment, and vision. (Let’s hope it thinks through its next Fire Phone, should it get the urge to try again.) Roku is another great company that has pushed forward its vision while Apple has neglected the Apple TV, which just got its first update in two years.
When he was done showing off the iPhone X, Tim Cook also quoted a Wayne Gretzky motto Steve Jobs loved to repeat: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Apple has long followed this motto, but it skates a lot harder and a lot faster when it’s on the ice with skilled players. In the mobile space, it hardly needs to think about the puck, because it’s already scoring most of the goals.
I look forward to the day when more of Apple’s rivals start skating to where the puck is going to be, and push that puck of innovation their own direction.
Update: Modified wording in the intro and added a fix to highlight that there is a difference between facial scanning features and the iris scanner on the Galaxy S8. Some other changes have been made for clarity thanks to our readers!