Twitter was underwhelmed by Apple’s launch event. There wasn’t the usual hoopla from Apple’s cheer leaders. Nor were there as many gushing, excited editorials as we’ve become used to.
In part this is because the four-inch iPhone SE is not aimed at Apple fanatics. Nor would it appeal to Geekzone readers. It’s a more modest phone. It will mainly sell to a less engaged set of users and those who find 4.7-inch displays too big.
The iPhone SE isn’t spectacular or ground-breaking. It fleshes out the less glamorous lower reaches of Apple’s phone product line. This is an area where Apple has been weak, although the iPhone 5S it replaced sold 30 million phones last year.
iPhone SE niche
That isn’t to say there won’t be a ready market for an iPhone smaller than the 6S and 6S Plus. If it wasn’t for my eyes, this would be the phone for me.
The iPhone SE packs all the important iPhone 6S specs into a device with a four-inch screen. You get the same main processor and graphics processor. There’s a similar quality camera. It’s useful, a good working tool. Yet it all fits in a smaller pocket.
It also has a smaller price tag.
At NZ$750 the 16GB version seems like decent value for an iPhone until you realise the spare storage can only copy with a few seconds of high-definition video.
The NZ$950 64GB version makes more sense. While the same money may buy a higher specification phone elsewhere, the likely customers are not the sort who compare processors and GPUs.
There are compromises. You don’t get 3D Touch, although I doubt many who have yet to use this would miss it. The front facing camera has a low specification.
None of this will matter to those who want a smaller or cheaper iPhone. It’s still an iPhone. It still looks good. It still offers great integration with other Apple hardware. For Apple users it is a far more productive choice than any other brand of phone.
There’s more to it than just being a smaller version of the 13 inch iPad Pro. It has a new screen technology with “True Tone” which takes ambient lighting into account to adapt the display brightness and colour.
There’s an improved iPad camera, but it comes with the same camera bump found on the iPhone 6S models. This will be a deal breaker for some users and detracts from the iPad’s ability to lie flat for use with the Apple pencil.
At NZ$1050 for a 32GB wi-fi only model, Apple is pushing the price envelope with its newest iPad. The top of the range model with 256 GB and a cellular sim slot is a whopping NZ$1820.
“Apple’s iPhone business is now so huge it sounds almost fantastical — Apple books more revenue from the iPhone (about $154 billion in its last fiscal year) than Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard or IBM generate from all of their operations. Two-thirds of the world’s countries have gross domestic products smaller than annual sales of the iPhone.”
That isn’t going to go away overnight.
What is behind the iphone sales slowdown?
First, Apple reported problems selling in China where the economy is hitting headwinds. For the last two or three years most new iPhone sales have come from that country.
Third, Apple changed the way it sells phones in the US. Until recently the iPhone was sold on a plan which meant buyers were subsidised by carriers. Now Apple sells phones outright, which means consumers have to dig deeper.
Owen Williams’ story suggests phones have hit the same saturation point as PCs.
That’s possible, but there are differences. People use phones every day and wear them out faster than they burn through PCs. They drop them more often, lose them, have them stolen more often than PCs. The average useful working life of a phone is between two and three years, although they can go on longer.
Phones eventually need replacing. Which means sales will stabilise. What level that happens at is a matter of guesswork, but it won’t be far from the sales peak.
Apple’s iPhone has always been more than just a phone handset. From the outset it has also been a pocket computer. The same is true for many Android and Windows phones .
While iPhones can’t do everything PCs do, they do the most important things. Modern handsets do them well enough for many people’s needs.
In the third world, phones are often people’s only experience of computers. It is how they use the internet. For them it is the computer.
Many of us living in richer countries have the luxury of owning more than one computer. That often means a desktop or laptop and a tablet and a phone.
Handset evolving role
Although the three have distinct functions, their relationship has evolved over the years. For Apple users the biggest step was last year when the IPhone 6 Plus arrived
Its bigger, 5.5 inch display brought more screen real estate. That meant more flexibility in displaying information. More text can fit on a single screen. A split screen is practical.
The larger screen also makes for easy data input. Big displays mean better on screen keyboards.
It’s not the best tool for writing a thousand word story, but it can be done without discomfort. As I found out in practice. That wasn’t the case with earlier, smaller iPhone displays.
Last year the iPhone went from being a communications tool with some processing to being a productivity hub. Everything else now revolves around the phone.
Android fans will argue otherwise but for me this is where Apple and Microsoft have an advantage. The phones integrate smoothly with laptops, desktops and other tools. They are much more than just phones.
But let’s keep this simple, it gets tiresome writing or Android or Windows Phone ever other sentence. ↩
Apple wasn’t first to the big phone party by a long shot. ↩
Please do. I’ve not found Android’s integration with desktop computers to be as smooth or as productive as the alternatives. Yet it’s clear millions of people do work this way so it must work. ↩
Phones are such an integral part of our lives even minor physical changes are noticeable.
There’s another subtle, yet noticeable change. The new models are also made from a new kind of aluminium alloy.
That makes for a different feel. Last year’s iPhone 6 models sometimes slipped from my hands, the new phones have better grip.
If you had told me, before I first picked up a 6S, that I’d notice such tiny differences, I might have laughed. And yet the changes were obvious.
Surface observations are trivial. Putting the snob value of Rose Gold to one side, external changes are no reason to choose an iPhone 6S over a 6.
What they say is more important. They tell you that there are internal changes. As it turns out, significant internal changes.
Apple’s advertising says: “The only thing that’s changed is everything”. It’s a typical Apple marketing slogan.
No doubt during the launch someone also said words to the effect that these are “the best iPhones ever”. Just as last year’s were and next year’s will be. The time to worry when new iPhone models are not better than those that went before.
You have to be careful with marketing-speak. While both statements are true, they are not valid reasons to spend a lot of money on a new phone. What matters is how the phones work in practice. In other words: do they bring anything new to the party?
The simple answer is that they do. Most of the important new capabilities lie inside. They will matter to existing Apple users more than people committed to alternative brands. Still, they are significant.
Touch a new dimension
Apple’s biggest innovation in the iPhone 6S is 3D touch. The phone can sense how hard you press when using the touch screen. This allows it to do new things.
If you’re on the home screen and you press an app icon, then apply extra pressure, it feels like pressing a button. There’s a slight vibration from the phone’s Taptic engine.
This is more than the usual phone vibration. Choose and press an icon for an app that is 3D touch ready and you’ll feel a single pulse vibration. You’ll also see a menu on screen offering what Apple calls quick actions.
There can be up to four quick actions. In some ways they are like right-clicking items on a computer. The specific quick actions depend on the app. In the case of the Pages word processor app, a single quick action allows you to open a new document.
If the app isn’t 3D touch ready, you’ll get a triple vibration. Your fingers soon learn to interpret this as a “nothing to see here, move along” message.
Written down, this may not sound like a big deal. Used daily, 3D touch and quick actions become second nature. The iPhone 6S starts to feel more responsive. The taptic engine is more than a cosmetic update.
Peek and pop
App developers can choose how to use 3D touch inside their apps. Many Apple apps already have 3D touch features. The most popular use something Apple calls “peek and pop”.
In iOS Mail, you can use the app as normal with the touch screen. Reach an interesting looking message, apply extra pressure and the message will highlight. Others fade into the background.
Press harder and a window opens in a similar way to Quick Look in the OS X Finder. This is the peek. It will show you a preview of the message.
If you let go at this point, the message preview window closes. If, instead, you apply a little more pressure, the message opens in the normal way.
From an open preview you can move the message left or right, up or down. This will perform the normal Mail swipe actions like deleting or archiving.
All this sounds complicated and tricky. My first reaction when I read about it was to assume it would be something only keen Apple geeks would bother with. After a short demonstration I realised it’s going to be mainstream.
It took some getting used to this advanced user interface. That’s why I left it a month to write this review. I wanted to see if I was still doing these things after a few weeks. I am.
My only gripe about peek and pop is that it isn’t always there. At least not yet. Once you get the hang of it, you expect to find it in every iOS app.
That’s going to take some time. By the time the iPhone 7 rolls around most apps will use this more advanced user interface.
In general users don’t care much about the processor chips in their phones. The important point is whether a phone has enough power to keep up with the software. We care about responsiveness.
It is worth mentioning the A9 processor in the iPhone 6S. Apple says it is 70 percent faster than the A8 used in the iPhone 6 models .
The A9 also includes the phone’s motion coprocessor that can figure out if the phone is moving. Meanwhile Apple has doubled the Ram in the new iPhones.
In practice this means you can have many apps open all the time and switch between them without missing a beat. You can also open more browser tabs. The upshot is you can push the phone harder than in the past without running into problems.
Camera spec bumped
My work means I often have to take photos in poor light conditions. Three years ago phone cameras weren’t up to the job most of the time. That’s changed. Every phone that’s passed through my hands this year can take decent journalist-style shots.
Phone makers all emphasise the recent improvements made to their cameras. Apple is no different. The company upgraded the cameras on both the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus.
What has changed is camera resolution. Apple has boosted this to 12 megapixels. More pixels means being able to capture more detail. We’re at the point now where adding megapixels does little for picture quality. It does help with digital zoom. The downside is the camera captures more data, so phone memory runs out fast. Bigger pictures also chew through mobile data limits faster.
The iPhone 6s Plus now has optical image stabilisation for both video and still photos. The earlier 6 Plus model had stabilisation for stills.
My recent schedule has meant I haven’t taken many work pictures with the new phone. Most of the ones I’ve taken have been to test the camera. While stabilisation means an improvement, it’s not a dramatic step up from the iPhone 6 Plus. The difference is more noticeable with shots taken in low light conditions.
Let’s hope this works well when I have to move fast to shoot pictures on the fly.
One new feature that could help my work is Live Photos. These are short Harry Potter-style moving snapshots. In effect you capture a few seconds of movie footage, although Apple prefers not to use the M word in this context.
What I’m hoping to do with Live Photos, is, in effect keep the camera running when, say, someone is speaking. Then run through afterwards and pick out the best shot.
The faster processor means a smoother iPhone experience. Although I never had trouble with the earlier iPhone 6 models, more speed is a productivity boost. There’s no reloading when returning to open apps after a long pause.
One persistent problem involves moving from landscape to portrait orientation. There are still times when the phone doesn’t re-orient the screen. My fix for this is to give the phone a shake. It doesn’t always do the trick.
On a similar note, some third-party apps fail to make use of the landscape orientation. That’s not something to blame on Apple. Over time this issue will fix itself.
In the past I’ve found Siri a struggle. While the software still has trouble understanding my hybrid accent, its performance is better on the iPhone 6S Plus.
Given the greater demands on memory from higher resolution pictures, a 16GB model seems like a bad idea. Unless you don’t take pictures or store music on your phone, this model seems like a non-starter.
The iPhone 6S and the 6S Plus are handheld computers that are also cameras and phones. That’s always been the case with smartphones. Until now they’ve not been able to replace desktops and laptops for day-to-day work. They weren’t powerful enough. They didn’t have big enough screens. They didn’t have the best mix of features. Now that’s changing.
Phones have already been our central productivity tool for years. There are people who use nothing else. While that’s not always practical, modern phones are able to take more and more of the burden.
Apple is working with publishers to add a new and fast-loading news app to iOS.
The app, called Apple News, will show up on iPhone and iPad home pages when iOS 9 arrives later this year.
Apple News pulls in news feeds from different publishers. It displays them in a magazine-style format like Flipboard. Readers will be able to filter their feeds so they can get the subjects they care about most.
The idea is that you’ll be able to quickly read the material you consider important from a variety of sources without jumping from one app or website to another.
In some respects it’ll replace RSS readers. They never recovered from the death of Google Reader.
Because it comes from Apple there’s an emphasis on how things look. Apple News is prettier than Google Reader replacements like Feedly. Although they set a low bar to beat.
The app will format material for iOS devices and will adjust for screen size. Most likely there will be something for Apple Watch owners too.
Apple has signed up publishers — including my technology news site. I’m curious to see how the model might work for publishers and writers.
We need fresh ideas. Few existing online publishing models work except for publishers with material worth putting behind a paywall.
Apple News will include advertising. At the same time the iOS 9 Safari browser will include optional ad blocking.
You could see this as Apple making life hard for publishers operating out the in the wild while offering something cosy inside the walled garden.
There’s another way of looking at this: Online advertising is a mess. Few publishers make more than a pittance from running banner ads, Google ads or indeed any kind of advertising. Ad sales stopped on this site because the revenue didn’t cover administering ad sales let alone other costs.
Things are extra hard for publishers when it comes to earning money from mobile readers. That’s where the audience is, but mobile ads earn a fraction of the money earned by PC browser ads. A small percentage of bugger all is not worth the effort.
It’s unlikely Apple News will do much for income, but it’s a publishing channel and business model worth exploring.
Can Apple will make it pay? That’s not a given. Remember the old iOS newsstand wasn’t a rip-roaring success. Remember how excited news publishers like Rupert Murdoch were about the iPad’s potential to save their broken business models?