iPhone 5 and the case for evolution

You may have heard grumbles of disappointment after—and in some cases before—the iPhone 5 announcement. Amid those guttural moans, you might also have heard such phrases as “user interface is the same,” “same hardware,” “safe, reliable, boring.”

Such assessments seem to assume that Apple should wow us with each and every release. After all, the company is supposed to be the world’s most abundant font of innovation. So whenever a new iPhone model is brought forth, it should sport not only a completely redesigned interface but also a wholly new case. In the land of shiny objects and gnat-like attention spans, we seem to expect companies like Apple to either change constantly or die.

Unless, of course, we take a couple of deep breaths and consider how these things really work. To do that, we need to take a brief stroll through the iPhone’s history.

In the beginning

The original iPhone ( ) offered a countenance navigable by people of normal intelligence, a keyboard-less touchscreen interface, a phone, visual voicemail, SMS, data connectivity, media playback, an email client, a calendar, an address book, and a real Web browser. Additionally, Apple and AT&T managed to create the simplest phone and data plans on the planet. By any measure, the first iPhone was a revolutionary machine.

But it was far from perfect. Where were the apps? Why was I stuck with slow EDGE networks when I’m out and about? How could anyone expect to store a reasonable amount of media on an 8GB device? Where was the GPS? My state requires hands-free operation while driving, but my iPhone had no voice control. Why was the camera so crummy? How was someone with visual disabilities supposed to use this thing? How to use the phone overseas without accumulating backbreaking charges? I want a video phone! Where’s my high-def display? Why. Is. This. Thing. So. Slow. ?

When the armchair quarterback crowd gathered to consider what the iPhone needed to be, those were the concerns that rose to the top of the list. And then, with subsequent iterations of the phone, Apple addressed each and every one.

The next steps

With the 3G iPhone ( ) and iOS 2, we got faster cellular connectivity, assisted GPS, and a lower price. The 3GS model ( ) added advanced accessibility features, a compass, video recording, voice control, an autofocusing camera, higher-capacity storage, and a significantly faster processor. (iOS 3 added cut and paste, MMS, and better search throughout.) The iPhone 4 ( ) added a faster processor in the A4 chips, FaceTime video with a front-facing camera, an improved rear-facing camera, Retina display, and LED flash. (iOS 4 brought multi-tasking, folders, and spell checking.) The 4S ( ) added Siri, a better camera that recorded 1080p video, and yet another processor bump. And the recently announced iPhone 5 bring more camera improvements, a larger display, a faster processor, LTE support, and a new dock connector.

Look through that list and you’ll find that with the last couple of iPhones it’s become more difficult to find glaring omissions. Those interested in finding fault instead look ahead to developing technologies such as Near Field Communication (NFC) for using your phone as a wireless credit card. Or 3D cameras. Or, well, something.

But from all signs, the revolutionary days are over. They are because—like OS X, like the iPod, like Apple’s computers—the iPhone is fully baked. It’s no longer a “We know, we know, we’ll get to that the next time around” product. Instead, new models get refinements along the lines of faster processors, better cameras, better battery life, and compatibility with faster networks. And for people addicted to sparkly changes, that’s infuriating.

And so, instead, they demand...what? New shapes? New materials? New colors? A radically different interface?

Maybe I need a couple of sips of whatever they’re drinking. But when I see those kinds of changes—as I have with the last several generations of the iPod nano—I can’t help but think that Apple has run out of compelling ideas. New features seem to be there not because they’re necessary or because they improve on existing technologies, but simply because they’re different.

And that’s the danger of getting the basics right, first crack out of the box. The round wheel works. Putting a couple of heating elements on either side of a piece of bread turns out to produce a fine hunk of toast. Placing a body’s thinking mechanism at the top rather than in constant contact with the ground makes for a more thoughtful machine.

While getting it right makes the case for obtaining the next model more difficult, the evidence that you still haven’t a clue how to approach a problem’s first steps is a tougher sell still. While others flounder (or, worse, copy), Apple evolves and—judging by the company selling out its iPhone 5 pre-orders in an hour—succeeds. Darwin would be proud.

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