Comment Apple's keynotes seem to command more mainstream front-page press attention than ever before – but each time, there's less and less to report. Is the modern smartphone era limping to a close?
Apple's announcements on Tuesday about the iPhone 5S and 5C were wearily predictable. Cupertino just doesn't seem to be where the action is any more.
It is almost as if Apple and its arch-rival Samsung have exhausted themselves by suing each other around the world – and now look like two very knackered boxers agreeing to shuffle their way through the remaining rounds to the bell, rather than risk throwing big punches.
Innovation? We've heard of it
From 2008 to 2010, Apple made stunning additions to the iPhone with each iteration – quite a feat considering that when it set out, it didn't really know how to make phones, and was learning along the way. Samsung then raised the market expectations further, with spectacular hardware, making the most of its imaging and displays expertise.
Today, the pair cream off almost 100 per cent of the hardware profits to be made, and most people look no further than some model of iPhone or some model of Galaxy S when choosing a phone. But the risk-taking is gone: they now copy themselves.
Perhaps the lack of innovation is simply the consequence of corporate profit-skimming. Perhaps you and I would do the same thing if we were running either company, given the happy position we would be in. Apple has the brand and the much stronger app marketplace, while Samsung has the distribution and throws a range of Galaxys at the market across every single conceivable price point. Both corporations are in strong, if not quite unassailable positions.
But the warning signs are there. Samsung reportedly held "crisis talks" this after sales of the Galaxy S4 failed to meet its expectations, Apple iPhone sales have declined for the past three quarters, and, well, "Peak Apple".
Samsung piled on gimmicky and slightly creepy features like eyeball tracking, simply because it could. Apple's user-facing innovation (the A7 64-bit chip is the real star of the show) entails building in a fingerprint scanner - a commodity laptop part for the past 10 years. Indeed, the only "radical" moves by Apple are adding colours to a slightly cheaper (but certainly not cheap) iPhone and rejecting NFC (or "Not F*cking Connecting", as it's known around here), which is a technology flop. Not so radical, then.
The stark truth is that smartphones, like computers, were only ever a means to an end – and once the services and apps markets matured, the smartphone itself became less ... important. It didn't really matter what access device you were carrying. The PC reached a point where the devices became beige boxes competing on price, and the smartphone era is drawing to the point where it doesn't really matter what black rectangle you're carrying – provided it accesses the services and apps you want. Fetishising the access devices is as strange as thanking LG or Panasonic for creating BBC2. No wonder both Samsung and Apple are looking at new higher-margin peripherals such as watches.
Jobs a good 'un
Back in the Steve Jobs era, the Apple founder looked around at industries which had ignored digitisation and networks and sought to place Apple in the chain, helping to create new markets. For example, the iTunes Music Store gave the major labels the long overdue kick up the bum they needed – which almost all will now acknowledge. That kind of ambition died with Jobs, it seems.
Surely nobody – not even the most avid fanboi – now believes that Jobs left "four years of new products" in the pipeline, as his biographer Walter Isaacson reported in 2011. Assuming Isaacson was inspecting Apple's lab in 2010, the first "three years" will soon be up. Which raises the question: is anything left? ®