We can all breathe out.
Apple’s annual hypefest – sometimes called the iPhone launch – has passed. As widely expected – and in accordance with Shapshak’s First Law of Smartphone Upgrades, minted for the last iPhone launch – it is thinner, has a faster processor and a better camera.
In fact, it’s not even thinner – the new iPhone 5S uses the same chassis as last year’s model, while the colourful, slightly cheaper 5C has a brightly-covered plastic back. It’s “unapologetically plastic” as Apple chief design god Sir Johnny Ives described it.
Apple, the once mighty doyen of consumer electronics that reignited its place in history with the iPhone, iPod, iPad and all-aluminium cases for its much-copied MacBook Air range, calling something “unapologetically plastic”.
But what last week’s launch showed us is that even Apple eventually falls to earth.
Nothing Apple released last week is better, or worse, than the other major manufacturers have revealed in their various recent launches, all trying to get their product out before the avalanche of Apple mania overwhelms any other coverage.
Except there was no avalanche. Apple has become just another computer/cellphone/smartphone maker faced with the same challenges as all the others. It will remain a high-end, premium brand (as the $100-cheaper pricing of the iPhone 5C will enforce) and will have continue to have its deserved halo effect.
Compare Apple’s news to the highlights of the other major announcements, and you see not only how the only differentiation is becoming brand, but also how the smartphone market has matured; and plateaued. They are:
Sony’s slim Xperia Z1 is waterproof and has stunning camera qualities.
Samsung’s Galaxy S4 (announced earlier this year) has a great screen and camera, and a bunch of health-measuring apps and activity monitors built-in. It knows when you’re not looking at it and pauses the screen.
Samsung has taken the high-road with one rumoured, but much-derided new category: smartwatches. The new Galaxy Gear watch is an accessory that currently only connects to the Note 3.
Nokia’s Lumia 1020 has a spectacular 41-megapixel camera, cleverly saving a 5MP image for social media sharing.
That – in plain English – is what the major smartphone players have launched. Samsung’s gains aren’t just its own. It has also boosted the position of Google, whose Android operating system it uses (as does Sony, LG, Motorola, Huawei and ZTE).
Android is the new Windows of the smartphone world, and sells some 70-80% of new smartphones (depending on which analyst’s numbers you subscribe to). Apple’s iOS has about 20% and the rest is being fought over by BlackBerry (anywhere between 4-13%) and Windows Phone (about 3-4%). Like Microsoft’s Windows dominated the desktop computing era, Android will do that for mobiles. Except, and this is a big but, about a third of Android activations have been in China, where a lot of these phones never connect back to Google’s search and cloud-services, the reason Google gives Android away for free by hoping to redirect traffic back to its own servers.
Meanwhile, we can breathe out because we now, definitively, know what the Steve Jobs magic has passed. Apple is reinventing the wheel – or in this year’s case, the home button with a fingerprint reader – in such an infinitesimal upgrade that no one believes the hype anymore.
The stock market wiped 5.4% off Apple stock after the announcement; worried, as they have been for the past year, that this is the last hurrah of the Jobs mojo. The share price is down a third from the high that took it past Exxon Mobil to make it the most valuable stock.
Without Jobs to “dehypnotise the media” and extend that famous “reality-distortion effect”, Apple It will continue to trade on its aura of specialness but in reality it has fallen to earth.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail.