From a distance, today may look like any other early-September Apple event: new iPhones, new features and accessories, and a couple of updates to the rest of the company’s prodigiously successful product portfolio. But look a little closer, and you’ll see some challenges that Apple hasn’t had to face before. They all relate to the fundamental issue of trust — something that Apple has enjoyed in unconditional form in the past, but will now have to justify and reinvigorate anew.
This will be the first iPhone launch following a decline in iPhone sales. It’s also expected to be the first time that Apple has kept roughly the same iPhone design for three years running. And the one significant design change Apple is making is the thing people are most wary of: the removal of the headphone jack. Then there’s also the anticipated Apple Watch 2, coming at a time when most people still need convincing of the benefits of smartwatches.
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For most of this century, Apple’s eccentricities and deviations from the mainstream PC, smartphone, or tablet market have been greeted with a trusting optimism. This is the company that called Blu-ray "a bag of hurt," chopped DVD drives and Ethernet ports off its most popular laptops, and pioneered the use of non-replaceable batteries for the sake of aluminum unibody design neatness. None of those steps have been especially friendly to the user in the short term, but they’ve all turned out to have been successful decisions over the long run.
Now the major task for Apple is to convince us that it can do it all over again. Some understandable doubt has crept in over recent times as Apple’s designs have lost some of their refinement and a great deal of their uniqueness, the latter thanks to a rapidly advancing cohort of Chinese competitors. Is it really okay for Apple to serve up the same aluminum unibody shell as it’s been offering since the original iPhone 6? Even the anticipated alteration to the antenna lines was already preempted by the Meizu Pro 6 in April. The Pro 6 also has a version of Apple’s 3D Touch, which is in itself a feature that was much touted last year, but poorly, if at all, utilized in the time since.
Without the upward velocity of constantly growing iPhone sales, Apple’s new iPhone will have to validate its existence in a way that no previous iteration has had to do. Consumers are now better informed, more demanding, and more price-sensitive than ever, and Apple will have to give them some reason to desire a broadly unchanged device. Simply being the latest iPhone is no longer enough.
One thing that can probably be taken as a given, however, is that Apple’s trust in itself remains entirely undiminished. No self-doubting company would dare shake the hornet’s nest that has been triggered by the anticipated headphone jack removal. This is taking one of the last remaining truly universal standard connectors and tossing it aside for the sake of something else. When Apple makes its case for why it’s making the change, the thing that will determine the success of its pitch will be how far we’re willing to trust it. Is this still the company that strode boldly beyond the optical-disc era and dragged everyone along with it? Or is it the one that left the 2015 MacBook underpowered and, with just one USB-C port, comically under-connected?
The Apple Watch is a similar tale insofar as it embodies a lot of Apple’s design strengths, but fails to complete the usual Apple success formula, which demands an equally satisfying user experience. Like all other smartwatches, the Watch remains a work in progress, undergoing vast changes in its interface as Apple works out the kinks in its software. This sort of "open beta" product development is more in line with Samsung’s habits than Apple’s, but we’ve seen it bear fruit for other companies and it might not be the worst strategy in the long term.
Embedded in every challenge is an opportunity, and for Apple today, that opportunity is to tie off a lot of loose ends. The so-far-underwhelming 3D Touch can be set on a path to widespread usefulness. The Apple Watch can be rebooted with the benefit of all the months of learning Apple has gained from its first iteration. And the long-running, rumor-fueled controversy around the headphone jack can be set into its proper context. iPhone sales may have been slumping lately, but that’s not because the phone itself has become any less useful. It just hasn’t kept growing and improving the way that cheaper rivals have, and now Apple finds itself facing stiffer competition.
To reclaim our trust, Apple has to show the same level of uncompromising polish and precision that’s characterized its past products — both in their design and usability — with its new initiatives. That won’t be easy, and there are more questions surrounding this new iPhone than ever, but Apple doesn’t like doing things the easy way anyway.