The iPhone 5 and Its Malcontents
*Note* This is about a phone that is yet to be announced and could be revealed as something completely different then what we are supposing it will be. But until then, we’re just going to suppose that the rumors are true.
The iPhone 5 is coming next week. It’s official. Apple has sent out the invites. However, unlike most the Apple announcements of old there is little doubt as to what the device will actually look like. As John Siracusa noted last week on Hypercritical, "we’ve got the thing’s number". The days of being truly surprised by the design of Apple’s new gadgets are over. There is sufficient interest in new iPhones and iPads that the supply chain can’t be locked down. The interest comes not only from people who want know about what their next phone will look like but also from case and accessories manufacturers who have a great deal of capital riding on being able to offer their goods as soon as they can after launch.
So we know what the device will look like. The consensus is that it’s pretty much the same and people aren’t happy about it. There are obvious visual similarities and there is no accounting for personal tastes. For those who don’t like the design you just have to fall back on the adage that haters are going to hate. But I think that the argument that the phone is the same but taller is overblown. I believe that once we get the device in our hands we will feel that it’s distinctive in some very significant ways.
iMore posted a story today confirming that the leaks we’ve seen are accurate and said:
"Almost identical in design to the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, the major visible differences will include a 4-inch display with a 16:9 aspect ratio, a metallic plate across most the back, and a miniaturized Dock connector and relocated 3.5mm headset jack along the bottom."
To me, this statement reads like so: The new iPhone is the same as the last one except for these four major things that will actually make it not virtually identical to the current iPhone at all. Let’s imagine if we wrote a summary of the iPhone 4 along the same lines. The new iPhone 4 is almost identical in design of the 3GS, the major visible differences include a back made of glass, a steel border that acts as an antenna, a thinner profile and round volume buttons. So let’s look at the new features of the design and judge the true significance of the changes.
You can say that the jump from plastic to glass on the back is significant and I would agree, but how is a jump from glass to metal any less notable? All you’re talking about is a jump from one material to another. Many believe that the glass on the back looked great but wasn’t practical. I’ve owned an iPhone 4 and an iPhone 4S and have never broken any of the glass but a lot of people have. A metal back sounds like a considerable improvement to me. Add in the possibility of a unibody construction noted by Don Lehman at TheTechBlock and I see the change as a leap forward. I could be shaped differently but we'll have more on that below. If Apple can pull off a metal unibody construction that resists scratching and allows for excellent reception it’s a pretty big step forward for phone design.
The Aspect Ratio and Size
iPhones have always been 3.5 in diagonally at a 3:2 aspect ratio. The change to retina resolution has been seemingly easy to understand and implement but resulted in a much better user experience. To change the aspect ratio on an iPhone is the very definition of unprecedented. It hasn’t budged in five generations. Apple is by all indications about to make one of its mobile products bigger. What previous change to the fundamentals of iPhone design has been more significant than that? If the ideas about an extra row of icons is correct you’re about to get 48 more apps available from your home screen. 16:9 video will be bigger and devoid of the black bars and four more photos will be visible in the Photos app. Great mobile app developers are skilled users of space in their designs, think of what they could do with that extra half inch. A bigger screen is a big deal.
The Dock Connector
Before iPhones had 3.5 in screens iPods had the 30 pin dock connector. The standardization of this connector and Apple’s near complete reliance on it is a big reason for iOS’ dominance in the third party accessory market. The accessory market for iOS devices dwarfs any other mobile operating system because Apple has changed little to nothing about their dock connector. All of that is about to change. It’s true that the dock connector has diminished in importance recently. Many cars come with Bluetooth interfaces that support audio, many portable stereos do as well, and iCloud/iTunes Match is the primary and considerably more convenient method of syncing data and music. Still, Apple’s move away from the legacy interface is a big deal for every company that makes peripherals for iDevices and anyone who uses those products.
The Headphone Jack
This is by far the least important change. I’m not excited about the headphone jack moving to the bottom of the device. When I’m lying on the couch I tend to rest the phone on my chest in portrait with the front facing camera at the top. This won’t work with the headphone jack on the bottom. A lot of apps will just adjust to how you hold the phone so I could hold the phone upside down but there’s a small but insistent part of me that doesn’t like that at all. My biggest, and one of my very few, complaints with my Nexus 7 is the position of the headphone jack. Also, when I travel, I have a dock that I plug the phone into in my car and then I use an AUX cable plugged into the headphone jack to get music into the audio system so i can control the music from the phone. This isn’t going to work anymore either. All told the location of the headphone jack is the smallest of the design changes but I think it will have one of the biggest effects on how I use my iPhone.
The Thing That Didn’t Change
The thing that makes everyone look at the mockups and say that Apple design has stagnated is the antenna. It is the most unique and iconic design feature of the iPhone 4 and 4S. Other than the Apple logo on the back there is no other aspect of the phone that so resolutely signals its identity. This is due to the fact that no one has copied it which in turn is probably due to the perception that it’s not a very good design from a standpoint of function. When the iPhone 4 launched and Antenna Gate hit how many people chided Apple for pursuing form over function. Sure the steel band looked great but the antenna obviously didn’t function very well. Now it does both. The reality is that in its current form it is a great piece of functional design. The iPhone 4S fixed the death grip issue while maintaining the beauty of the design. The steel band broadcasts the signal and provides structural integrity as well. Why drop a design element that is both functional and defines the brand? The only reason to do so is if you have something better. Apparently Apple doesn’t have anything better right now. I’m okay with that.
The iPhone 5 will look like an iPhone. It will incorporate the elements of iPhone design that have been co-opted by the rest of the industry like black rectangular front face but will retain some things that make modern iPhones what they are. The steel exterior antenna is one of those elements. But if the rumors prove true then the iPhone 5 will be a very different experience to use than any other iPhone to date. Describing it as virtually identical will not be an honest assessment. There was considerable backlash to the iPhone 4 design when it leaked but it is now iconic and respected. Good money is on this design following the same path.