Re-conquering Human Technology: The iPhone SE

March 21st, 2016

With a few hours to go before Apple goes live on the “Let’s Loop You In” event marked for the morning of March 21, I am more or less intimidated to write about the much expected iPhone SE that is expected to be launched at the event.

I usually like to span the realms of strategy around technology and design and not going to endlessly harp about “Oh, what’s expected in the iPhone SE” because chances are, if you have reached this article, at the eleventh hour, you probably would be having a good idea about what to expect from Apple today. And if not, reality is not very far away. For starters, much of the hoopla around the expected specs – the A9/M9 chips, 4-inch screen and a similar form factor to the iPhone 5S is expected, coupled with a 12MP camera and Apple Pay and so on. Yeah, numerous reports also suggest that Apple will limit 3D touch to the “larger siblings” but for most users, the feature has failed to touch their lives. I mean, come to think of it, how many times have you actually sat down to press harder on the screen (while running the risk of dropping your phone) to activate a menu, that may or may not yet be offered in the app you’re running.

Haptic feedback technology has found its way into the modern laptops that Apple has made thinner and lighter. And yes, it is great to have a touchpad that responds equivalently from all corners, instead of the conventional hinge design, where the button response happened only from one side.

Since we’ve started talking about laptops, it’ll be good to talk about the new 12” MacBook that Apple launched last year. In keeping with what I expected from my view of it, I haven’t seen many of them around and I’ll attribute a lot of it to size, not the price or performance. And that’s because there are these reasonable limits to ergonomics which make things easy to use.

New-Macbook-Wide

Although, many companies including Sony with the VAIO-TZ and others have experimented a lot with micro-sized laptops, we’ve seen a catastrophic failure of 10” netbooks that never quite made it, despite the price points they were pitched at. When it comes to using laptops, the natural sizes of 13” and 15” are what consumers are looking for. A slightly smaller one for everyday use that includes word processing, emails, browsing, blogging etc. and if you’re comparing the 13” MacBook Air to the 13” MacBook Pro – your choice of performance and retina display will be determined by your use of the machine. Larger machines, i.e. the 15” ones would find space on the desktops of professional users, artists, editors – who need to use the extra screen space, as well as need the extra processing power from the workhorse. 11” and 17” MacBooks have been popular only amongst niches – simply because they sit outside of the bell curve suitable for human use.

Human technology plays a great part at deciding what size is right. I’ve lamented before that Apple made a big mistake by bumping up the screen size of their iPhones ahead of the size of the iPhone 5 (and the iPhone 5S) simply because, they have been running low on innovation, and competing desperately with Samsung to keep place in the market. Yes, sales figures have shown great adoption of the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6S. But that’s not because the phones came with a practical screen size, but because of the inertia that Apple technology – their hardware-software integration, and the brand image new gadgets from the company’s stable carry.

I’ll trace my intrigue for human technology, all the way back to 1996, when Nokia unveiled the high-end Nokia 8110i, with single-hand operation. That day, Nokia had wiped out competition when it came to design, for years to come. I can remember the TV advert in my mind like it was yesterday – a man juggling with one hand while making a phone call with the other. In 1998, the Nokia 5110 captured the market, and from 1999 to 2003, my preferred handset was always the Nokia 8210 which by far has been the smallest handset Nokia has ever made. It took Motorola, a good long time to come up with Razr, to win back some lost marketshare.

This time, the handset game had recognisably moved towards natural materials, with the Razr being built with Aluminium and glass. The second generation of the phone, coupled with Motorola’s close relationship with Apple, sported iTunes on it. And many people thought, this is as close as Apple will ever get to making a phone. Who knew, we would be sitting one day, reading and debating about iPhone designs, as though our live’s are dependent on it. (Respect to bloggers who make a living out of writing reviews).

It has been well believed by most that the iPhone 5 design had been finalised by Steve Jobs, who continued to pursue the “human technology” angle into all product design, and had recommended the phone be just longer, and not wider, so to fit correctly into the palm for single hand operation. There are numerous things we have learnt about phones during the past two decades they have been around. And some of these are:

  • We do not like antennas. Neither do we like styli.
  • We prefer metals and glass to plastic. Yes, the iPhone 5C was perceived as cheap and not colourful.
  • We do not like bulk. Larger screen sizes are good, but phones should be easy in the palm for single hand operation, with all buttons in proper reach for the average sized hand.

Things we like:

  • Phones that do not halt.
  • Batteries that last a day’s use.
  • Selfies.
  • Music. Radio. Connectivity.
  • Sharing, wireless transfers and bluetooth.

If you were to ask for my genuine opinion, the iPhone 5S, as of date is the last genuine iPhone that is perfect in terms of size and performance as a phone. It’s a precise mix of what a user wants, with the buttons in the right place, a fingerprint sensor, the lightning connector and a camera that comes flushed with the back, doing perfect justice to expectations.

Off late, a lot of the products in the market are simply lacking innovation. Back in the late nineties, or early 2000s, I could spend hours in an electronics store adding gadgets to my wish list. And today, you might blame it to the closure of Circuit City, and the rise of Amazon, that I would be doing much of the browsing online, but let’s face facts. There are no truly revolutionary products that I can see on the horizon that are going to change the way we live. Apple did revolutionise the smartphone space. Companies like Microsoft, Nokia and Blackberry struggle to find space with the end consumer, where wish lists primarily contain MacBooks, iPhones and products that are built to augment the user experience like GoPro, Lily, Anki Drive etc.

So where are we headed with the new generation iPhone SE (or whatever it is finally called) when it is released? I’ve seen reports that suggest Apple is planning to woo the “Indian consumer” with the new generation phone that’s cheaper. Is it the age of coming, when the Indian consumer has finally become important to Apple? Then, where was the pricing strategy never figured out, and why was the Indian consumer always paying an extra premium over international prices for Apple products? Why were the launches always delayed?

I do not agree, that Apple is trying to find space in the lower end of the market. If they are thinking that, they will bomb out again, like they did with the iPhone 5C. No body wants to buy a product (and pay through their nose for it), believing it is the lower-end of a high-end brand. NO!

Larger-iPhone-Wide

If at all, anything is happening, Apple is experimenting again with the lost grounds of human technology – they are trying their level best maintain position of a usable device manufacturer, that forms part of an altogether practical experience where the “phablets” are failing to deliver. Ask me, what are my expectations of the devices to come by – yes, I feel they are going to offer an affordable 16GB device which will lack the punch for storage, especially if you’re hitting into a 12MP camera segment. Considering the punch that an A9 processor can bring to a device, on-the-fly movie editing should be the forte for the device, and in my opinion 32GB should be a bare minimum.

The iPhone 5C was a lame attempt at building cheaper phones. The legacy until then had been, Apple would reduce the price of the erstwhile model, and offer the newest one at the same price as the latest offering last year. While, the C was more in-line with a statement from the new CEO about him being there, it was perceived as a “cheap” move by the customers. The iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus on the other hand were recognised as moves that Apple was trying to compete with Samsung in the phablet market space. And, if Apple wants to be realistic today, they might as well own up, and restore the image, about what is the right size of a device one must carry in their hand.

Adding to this, there are rumours that the 3.5in audio jack will be done away with. Yes, if they are wanting to make the devices thinner, it might be the case. But, I’ve tried my hands with a lot of bluetooth devices for audio, and still swear by cable connectivity for audiophile grade music experience. Most other phone manufacturers have experimented with a variety of connectors for headsets, but for all practical purposes, 3.5mm jacks have remained the standard that people prefer, and like.

We are moving towards a purely wireless world, and perhaps that is the future. The USB-C connector, wireless charging and bluetooth. If these will be mistakes or not, time will only tell.

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