Why iPhone Launches Are Now About Software, Not Hardware

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Photo: JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

This afternoon, Apple unveiled its next iPhone. It came with the standard upgrades (longer battery, faster components, thinner profile), the expected tweaks (no headphone jack, another camera lens), and … not much else. It’s a smartphone! You’re used to them by now.

Who cares? I mean, obviously people care, but six years ago, when Gizmodo got its hands on a prototype left at a bar, it was the biggest tech story in the world. Nowadays, Apple phone redesigns are less novel. Apple actually leaked its phone in advance by posting pictures on Twitter. There are a number of reasons for this, and many of them are technical, but it helps to compare physical hardware development to Moore’s Law, a foundational principle of computing.

The idea of Moore’s Law is that every two years, computer chips double in speed. This was novel decades ago, as hours of number-crunching dropped to minutes and then seconds. The progress was noticeable and admirable. But when you get from 100 milliseconds to 50 milliseconds, the improvements become less obvious, less laudable. The same idea applies to hardware. IPhones have gotten thinner, but by shaving off fractions of an inch at a time. Now, Apple is sacrificing the standard 3.5 mm jack for an ever-so-slightly thinner profile. Instead of going from slow to fast, and fat to thin, the iPhone now goes from very fast to very, very fast, and pretty thin to just a tad bit thinner.

Consider Apple’s extended segment on their camera. The new tech, according to Apple, performs “100 billion operations in 25 milliseconds every time you take a picture.” That’s a number so astronomical crammed into a segment of time so short that it defies comprehension and, subsequently, appreciation.

Speaking of the camera, holy moly did Apple spend way too long talking about it. They were really scraping the bottom of the barrel, stretching for time by talking about optical zoom, and bokeh, and technical intricacies that the normal smartphone user doesn’t really care about. All Apple needs to do every year, camerawise, is demonstrate that the photos look better than ever. At some point, 20 minutes into his camera opus, it seemed like Phil Schiller was actually trying to put the audience to sleep before getting to controversial news that the phone was dropping its headphone jack.

That’s why Apple led off by focusing not on the phone itself but on what you could do with it, what the phone served as an interface for. You can listen to music through Apple’s subscription service. You can view your photos in iCloud, the storage space of which can be increased by paying Apple. You can control your home by connecting to other devices powered by Apple’s HomeKit.

Apple touted that it had 70 exclusives alone since Apple Music launched a little over a year ago. It touted significant third-party software exclusives from Nintendo properties. It spent a misguided amount of time showing off the latest iWork, which was essentially Google Docs. Multiple times, executives casually dropped the concept of machine learning to signal that they know about AI and that they can compete. As was echoed in last month’s Fast Company interview, Maps seems poised to become a conduit for other splinter services. Last but not least, Apple touted the new Home app as “the first time that home automation has been integrated into a major platform.”

There are obvious rebuttals to this line of thinking — that Apple has just settled into a pace. As always, the improved camera and better battery are nice. The fingerprint sensor is now cool. And, of course, I always think I don’t need a thinner, lighter phone until I hold it in my hands. It is, after all, much easier to trumpet engineering achievements than incremental software feature bumps.

Yet, one could also point to the growing number of leaks leading up to each annual reveal as an implication that Apple just doesn’t give much of a crap about its hardware’s “wow” factor. The phone is no longer the thing. It’s the software that lives on the phone that matters. Smartphones and spec bumps are no longer novel experiences. They’re just a way of life now.

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Why iPhone Launches Are Now About Software, Not Hardware