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Apple's iPhone Shows the Emphasis is on Improving the User Experience
Apple's iPhone 7 launched to the usual blaze of speculation and publicity. As I watched the event and the presentation of each feature and improvement the point that occurred to me was that it is now near enough impossible for a smartphone to stand out from the crowd. Apple did a great job in explaining the advances in camera functionality, battery performance and the new waterproof capability but it struck me that someone had done each of these things already. Apple has cherry-picked the best features and advances in technology but someone, somewhere has pretty much done them all and they can be found in other manufacturers' devices.
Dual lens cameras can be found in the LG G5 and Huawei's P9, the latter developed with Leica's input. Sony too has made much of its advances with camera technology, not surprising given it is the major supplier of the components to most other companies. Similarly, it has been very progressive about its battery performance (stating two days for its Xperia models for some time now) and it has recently introduced smarter charging to prolong the life of its newer Z-series models). The same for waterproofing, Sony has it (in most models), Samsung also reintroduced it for the Galaxy S7 (having previously dropped it for the S6).
Much was made of the loss of the 3.5mm headphone jack but consumers have been moving towards Bluetooth headphones for some years and given an adapter is provided it really is a moot point. It is an Apple-specific development and doesn't signify any notable advance or change in design or capability. Saying that, the greater data throughput and quality available via Apple's lightning connector may prepare the way for higher quality audio services from Apple.
The rest of the features and changes are largely design orientated. Apple is great at integrating proven technology and establishing features that others have struggled with, the addition of Touch ID and biometric fingerprint readers in phones being a great case in point.
What this really indicates is that hardware is not enough to stand out from the crowd. This is a result of the smartphone market having matured significantly in the past few years. The market is effectively at a point of saturation and vendors are no longer able to rely on a killer feature or design change (given current technology) to drive sales. The iPhone 6 two years ago was the last real device to do this and that was perhaps its simplest change; Apple responded to the phablet trend and delivered a bigger iPhone that immediately stood out from previous iterations. That produced a jump in sales, timed well with its own expansion and uptake in Asiawhich was at the forefront of phablet demand.
Global Smartphone Penetration
Where Apple has gone with these latest advances and design features is to focus more on the user experience. Apple users rank the highest in terms of their use of apps, especially paid for apps and Apple is doing its best to maintain this. Whilst the camera improvements on their own may not stand out too much, they will be well received by their strong base of Instagram users. The screen is brighter and better quality, lending itself to capturing (via the camera) and viewing high quality content. Battery performance has to improve to support these features without degrading the overall user experience by having to charge it more often (thereby interrupting usage). Battery, screen and audio are the other three areas cited by consumers as being of most importance and Apple has addressed these to maintain and increase appeal to their user base, which is critical when operating at such a premium and having to justify to maintain their higher prices – something most other manufacturers have been unable to do.
Whilst some have made much of Apple's "struggles" in 2016, the other manufacturers would happily swap places with Apple to have such "difficulties" to contend with. Meanwhile, Apple continues to expand its portfolio and add its brand to new products. The Watch 2 has seen waterproofing also added and advances within Watch OS3, better lending itself to outdoor and sports usage which remains the "killer app" for wearables.
Futuresource expects to see more from them on the headphone side and the AirPods are Apple's first venture into "hearables". Whilst others are already available (notably Bragi's Dash and Samsung's Gear Icon X), Apple has again looked to offer a smarter user experience, combining sensors within the earbuds to optimise usage, with good reliability rather than trying to do everything they could think of being the primary concern. The AirPods automatically switch on when removed from the charger case, they pair very simply, they automatically stop music playback when removed and start again when put back in, they allow Siri to always be on hand (and as that improves this will move things forward again).
More product categories will be introduced over time, with Futuresource expecting more news in the smart home arena. It is likely that we will see Siri feature more prominently there too as virtual assistants are already being used by Amazon, Google and Sony to integrate themselves every closer into consumers' lives. For now though we are already thinking about what may be done to mark the iPhone's 10th anniversary next year. Does Apple have one more surprise in terms of hardware and design to go with its other advances relating to the user experience and how its customers interact with its devices and their wider ecosystems across homes, offices and automobiles?
Here at Futuresource Consulting we deliver specialist research and consulting services, providing market forecasts and intelligence reports. Since the 1980s we have supported a range of industry sectors, which has grown to include: CE, Broadcast, Entertainment Content, EdTech and many more.