Ho-hum. The iPhone 5 isn't going to wow anyone

<b>commentary</b> The lack of dramatic changes in Apple's last few product announcements could lead to problems down the line.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read
Are these phones really that different? James Martin/CNET

commentary So that's all you've got, Apple?

Today's Apple event finally brought to light a redesigned iPhone 5 -- the first significant change after more than two years. But the latest installment warranted polite applause rather than enthusiastic cheering. If you take a step back from the instant excitement and hype that comes from an Apple launch event, you start to see that there's actually little that's all that groundbreaking.

Yes, the iPhone features a new look, but it's really only slightly elongated and a bit thinner than the previous version. Look at the side-by-side comparison; did Apple really strain itself to be different? Many of its big new features, from 4G LTE compatibility to a bigger display, have long been found in rival Android and even Windows Phone smartphones. In fact, as the features were ticked off, I kept thinking to myself that there was either an app for it, or it's already been done by Android.

See CNET's full coverage of Apple's iPhone 5 event

Think about it: was there one legitimately new feature that was shown off? That's the big issue. When a company stops innovating, it becomes vulnerable. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but the lack of breakthrough products sets you on the track for a potential downfall.

My colleague Stephen Shankland wrote earlier this week that the smartphone industry has entered the "ho-hum" era for the business, with precious few revolutionary advancements from any players. Apple is caught in the same dilemma.

But I wonder if it's broader than the iPhone and something that applies to Apple as a whole company. The last several product announcements have been less than scintillating, and it would be difficult to call them groundbreaking.

The iPhone 4S offered up internal specification upgrades and the voice-command feature Siri. The new iPad gave us a Retina Display -- great on the eyes, but hardly a reason for an upgrade. Then the MacBook Pro got the Retina Display treatment. Even the iPad 2, which got a laundry list of improvements, was seen as a product that filled in the missing features of the original without taking a major step forward.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and executives Phil Schiller and Jonathan Ive today stressed the work that went into the new, bigger 4-inch display. But should they be this excited about a feature that many had expected a year ago?

The next new product, the rumored iPad Mini, seems to follow the same lines. It's more a response to competition from Amazon and Google and a chance to sell to a larger base of customers than a true innovation.

Don't get me wrong. These products all have that usual Apple flair for design, and I own some of them. They have also each reached new levels of success and are leaders in their respective fields. I expect the iPhone 5 to be a massive hit as well. These products have also helped Apple grow at a time when its competitors are all shrinking or flailing.

The lack of real innovation isn't going to slow down sales of the new iPhone, which will likely benefit from the pent-up demand for the product. Even the iPhone 4S, which was an incremental improvement to the iPhone 4, saw lines around the block at Apple stores. The iPhone 5 lines should be even longer.

Perhaps success has bred a level of complacency at Apple? It's not like the company needs to really reach to put out a blockbuster product, given all of the hype and buzz surrounding it.

Apple may have set the bar too high over the last few years. The original iPhone was a revelation that changed the way everyone thought about how a smartphone could work and forced a massive change in the industry. It left the established handset manufacturers years behind and, in many cases, still struggling to recover financially.

The iPhone 3G was equally as revolutionary, bringing the phone down to a more affordable $199 level -- setting the bar for what a flagship phone should sell for -- and introducing the App Store, which opened up a new business for burgeoning and established developers. It forced every other mobile platform, whether it was BlackBerry or Windows Phone, to open application stores and curry favor with developers or risk sinking into irrelevancy.

Apple then created a new category of laptops with the MacBook Air that forced Intel to respond with its push of the Ultrabook line of PC laptops.

The iPad, which originally was mocked as a stretched out iPhone, has actually turned out to be a new way of browsing the Internet, viewing videos, and even doing business. It didn't deter Apple that the iPad, and tablets in general, could potentially cannibalize laptop sales. As a result, it still owns a majority of the tablet market, with a crowd of competitors still lagging far behind.

Ultrafast LTE isn't exactly a new feature. James Martin/CNET

In comparison, let's look at the features of the iPhone 5. Apple spent a lot of time talking about the "ultrafast" 4G LTE connection -- something that's been available on other phones for more than a year. The ability to take photos from video? The Galaxy S3 and the One X both boast that feature. Stitching together multiple photos in "Panorama mode"? It's already built into the new Motorola Droid Razr phones.

Where are the products and features that reset the bar and force the rest of the industry to scramble after the company?

Perhaps I'll be proved wrong. Apple may do something radical and revolutionary with the television. Maybe Steve Jobs did leave Cook a roadmap for future products, and I just have to be a bit more patient. Or perhaps the next iPhone will deliver that massive jump in advancement many are waiting for.

But right now it looks like Apple's vaunted pipeline of "magical" products is drying up.

Eyes on Apple's new iPhone 5 (pictures)

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