Apple, it's time to drop the whole 'S' routine

commentary The iPhone maker stubbornly clings to the once-a-year release date, with a major change every two years. It won't always be able to get away with moving so slowly.

The iPhone 5S now comes in gold. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Once every other year won't cut it anymore, even for Apple.

The iPhone 5S, Apple's newest flagship smartphone, debuted on Tuesday at the typical hype-filled and splashy event. Like the iPhone 4S and iPhone 3GS, it offered some new software tricks, but little physical change -- aside from a new gold color option.

This is the odd year in the iPhone development cycle, the year before and after a major change in hardware. Indeed, Apple has gotten comfortable in its routine of offering only a major change every other year, a pattern that even its fans have settled into.

But with so many companies pushing forward with new innovations on a yearly, and even monthly, basis, now is not the time for Apple to be easing off the pedal. When it comes to hardware and design -- once an area where Apple held an unquestioned leadership position -- the company should be hitting the gas hard.

Apple should be pushing for design breakthroughs every year. Instead of an "S" version, Apple fans should be getting a whole number upgrade, and all the big upgrades that come with the number change. Clearly, they are eager for improvements like an even bigger screen.

"Jony Ive is one of the best industrial designers ever and he needs to come up with magic once a year to make the competition perpetually play catch-up," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "That's what Apple needs to do as the industry leader."

At a time when HTC boasts an all-metal One smartphone, and Nokia has pushed the envelope with a 41-megapixel camera phone, Apple offered an iPhone 5 lookalike with some new software tricks and internal specification upgrades.

The lack of a major change invited some barbs from rivals. Nokia mocked the upgraded camera on the iPhone 5S, noting that it falls far short of the PureView camera found in its Lumia 1080. It led to HTC's self-congratulatory blog post about its constant push to change the "status quo," something Apple seems comfortable with right now.

Of course, these competitors are small fry relative to Apple. HTC is struggling with falling profits and revenue, and Nokia's phone business is moving over to Microsoft. Apple will undoubtedly sell boatloads of the iPhone 5S, and the same screen size will keep developers happy.

"There's something to be said for keeping things familiar for a full device cycle," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

But the fact that Apple has opened itself to snide comments speaks to the shrinking gap between it and its rivals. Where once Apple was the undisputed leader in design and hardware, it can now no longer make such a claim.

Even Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S4, which took some criticism for the little physical upgrade it went through, managed to pack a larger display into a similar-sized body.

It's clear that a larger display is what consumers want, something Apple has yet to fully embrace.

While Llamas believes the once-every-two-years hardware upgrade cycle is fine, he acknowledged that he would want to see a bigger display, somewhere in the range of 5 inches.

Llamas isn't the only one. Some Apple fans are likely a little envious of the giant screens that all of the recent flagship smartphones rock. With the iPhone 5S just unveiled and still employing the same 4-inch display, it'll likely be another year before they get their wish.

Again, Apple's decision to move slowly with its hardware changes likely isn't going to hurt the company on the financial end -- people will still snap up iPhones at an impressive rate. But it would be terrific if Apple took the lead again on design and creating drool-worthy products. The iPhone 5S is nice, but I don't feel the immediate need to run out and get one.

Maybe it's unfair to place such lofty expectations on Apple. Or maybe as fellow CNET editor Charles Cooper pointed out, the sizzle really is gone from the smartphone industry.

Apple's Phil Schiller called the iPhone 5S the "most forward-thinking phone ever made." I would wager that a lot of Apple's competitors would question that claim. And for once, they may have a point.

About the author

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan.

 

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