LONDON – When Steve Jobs was still with us, many commentators — yours truly included — used to complain about the “reality distortion field” that surrounded Apple’s charismatic leader. Those in attendance when Jobs launched the devices and services (iPod, iTunes, OS X, iMac, MacBook, iPhone and iPad) that blew such huge holes in the business models of established industries told of events that were more like religious revival meetings than corporate press conferences. As Apple’s dominance grew, the man who led it came to be seen as a unique combination of visionary, guru, saint and mogul.
But then mortality intervened and His Steveness passed away. The reality distortion field persisted, however, though now in reverse. It led people to conclude that the death of the magician would inevitably lead to the end of the magic that made Apple the most valuable company in the world. In comparison to Jobs, his successor, Tim Cook, was seen as charismatically challenged. And while we could expect Apple to thrive for a little longer, it was only because Cook would be unveiling innovations that were in the works when Jobs was alive. After that, the well would surely run dry.
It was against this background that the hapless Cook unveiled the new iPhones on Sept. 10. He announced a cheaper model (the 5c), the more upmarket 5s and a new version of Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS 7). Although the event was accompanied by the usual hoopla, the overall media reaction was a barely stifled yawn. Sure, the 5c came in bright colors and was a bit cheaper, but it wasn’t cheap enough to break into the lower end of the market.
And although the 5s came with a more powerful processor, a motion-sensing chip and a significantly better camera, it was really just more of the same. Well, except for the fact that it had a fingerprint sensor for user authentication. And as for iOS 7, well, the only really interesting thing about it was that it now had flat icons rather than the faux-3-D ones of iOS 6. It all went to show (so the narrative implied) that Apple had lost its mojo.
As a case study in how a media narrative can miss the point, this one would be hard to beat. So here’s an alternative one. What Apple did on Sept. 10 was to release the first operational 64-bit hardware and software ever seen in a mobile device. The number of bits is important, because every mobile processor up to this has been a 32-bit chip, which means in essence that it can only address 4GB of working memory. This has hitherto been enough for mobile devices (and indeed most desktop machines) but it’s not enough for more powerful computers. So the really intriguing question raised by the iPhone 5s’s A7 processor, with its ability to address colossal amounts of memory, is: Why is it there? And what clues does it give as to what Apple is planning next?
Given that what Apple thinks today, the rest of the industry thinks next year, the answers to these questions will be interesting. (Readers with long memories will recall that Apple was the first to drop floppy disks, internal modems, CD/DVD drives and laptop hard drives, and that on each occasion the omissions were greeted by howls of derision from the industry, followed rapidly by shamefaced adoption.)
In the same vein, most of the media coverage of iOS 7 focused on the radically different “look and feel” of the user interface, the sparseness and minimality of which was widely attributed to Sir Jony Ive, who is now in overall charge of both hardware and software design at Apple. This is fair enough: after all, for most people, the most important aspect of a device is its user interface. Is the thing easier to use after the latest “upgrade”? The answer for iOS 7 seems to be a qualified “yes.”
But for geeks, two things about iOS 7 stand out. One is the fact that Apple could completely rewrite a complex operating system for a 64-bit environment — and ship it in a relatively bug-free state, on time. The other is the way iOS 7 solves a problem that has been bugging Internet engineers for years — how to ensure that if one mode of connecting to the network fails, your device can seamlessly switch to another mode. The solution is called multi-path TCP and — guess what? — iOS 7 has it. But you’d have to read a lot of media coverage of the iPhone launch to learn that. Those who think that Apple has peaked ought to think again.