Apple’s new flagship smartphone the iPhone X will be in public hands by the end of the week. With an entry-level price just one pound short of four figures at £999, it will be Apple’s most expensive iPhone ever setting a new benchmark for a brand synonymous with high prices.
In terms of pure technology, iPhone X is powered by the most advanced mobile processor Apple has ever developed. The A11 bionic chip has four cores that run 70% faster than the iPhones 7’s A10, and the new Face ID system – which replaces the popular Touch ID with 3D sensors – is a hardware first in the smartphone market.
But that aside, the iPhone X really doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before technologically. It will be the first iPhone to feature an OLED display, but OLED has become standard with high-end Android smartphones and the reported specifications for iPhone X suggest the display will have fewer pixels and a lower resolution than other competing OLED smartphones. Wireless charging has been introduced to the iPhone, but again, this technology along with the dual lens camera has been commonplace in other devices for several years.
Aesthetically, the design of the iPhone X does represent something new, a radical departure from the form factor that has remained largely unchanged for a decade. The ever-present home button has been discarded to make way for what Apple describes as an immersive edge to edge display. The bezels have, for the most part, gone giving the iPhone X a screen size larger than the iPhone 8 Plus despite an overall size closer to the regular iPhone 8.
However, the problem is the screen isn’t really ‘edge to edge’. And it’s certainly not immersive when sitting at the top of its screen is the obtrusive ‘notch’, a design choice that has been greeted with dismay and ridicule by hardcore Apple fans, some even touting iPhone X as Apple’s worst product design ever.
It may seem pedantic and superficial to focus on what is just an aesthetic quibble. But aesthetics have been key to Apple’s success and indeed their brand identity, with the company’s image defined in large part by a total commitment to symmetry, minimalism, and natural elements, both in its hardware and software. Operating systems named after marvels of nature, and machines made of tactile materials like glass, polished stainless steel, and aluminium.
Prior to Apple’s huge success, the aesthetic design of consumer technology tended to mirror its sophistication. The more advanced the technology, the more elaborate the design. But Apple turned that notion on its head – delivering the most advanced and reliable machines in minimalist form, with smooth textures accompanied by images of nature that helped to naturalise the technology, making it at once luxury and everyday, both beautiful and utilitarian.
The iPhone X doesn’t entirely abandon this approach. The same materials like glass and polished steel are present, along with the natural imagery, but the design seems hesitant as if the previous devotion to that Apple aesthetic we know has been compromised or demoted in importance. And perhaps it is a wider indication that Apple is starting to lose touch with those key qualities and values which made it great.
Sales of both iPhone 8 models have been underwhelming, and Apple must be hoping this lack of interest is due to consumers waiting for iPhone X. But it is estimated by analysts such as KGI that only 2-3 million iPhone X handsets will be ready for shipment this week. These are still huge numbers, but to put them in context, the iPhone 6S sold 13 million units during its launch weekend. In addition, the once exceptionally stable and reliable iOS software has been dogged with problems, leading to Apple releasing updates on a weekly basis. With apps crashing and battery life hit hard, it all adds to the suspicion that quality control is not what it used to be at Cupertino.
In some peoples eyes, Apple has been slipping for a while, and it is a perception not based just on sales figures, but on the growing feeling that Apple is no longer a leader or innovator, that the brand is living off the warm, but fading glow of former glories.
For an anniversary iPhone, something so rich with symbolic value, something that should encapsulate all that was good about a machine that truly did change the world, it is difficult to understand how Apple could approve and release a device that has hit so wide of the mark for many die-hard fans. So long the gold standard in smartphones, it would be truly ironic if the iPhone X turns out to be more of a commemoration than a celebration.