The stock market seems to love Apple lately, based in no small part on recent product announcements. This engineer isn't nearly as enthusiastic about them. Who's right?
Back on September 12, 2017, Apple unveiled its latest round of products. I monitored the coverage (I wasn't personally there) with a profoundly underwhelming feeling. But the company's more recently reported fiscal quarter results were through the roof, along with its forecast for the subsequent (Christmas-inclusive) quarter. And one day later, one of the more notable devices announced back in September went on sale to (mostly) rave reviews and long lines of anxious customers hoping to snap up scant available supply. So what gives with the discrepancy? As I sort through what Apple launched back in September 2017, I'll provide commentary, and as always I also welcome your comments.
From a product standpoint (skipping over the introductory testimonial to Steve Jobs, who the theater was named for), the event kicked off with Apple Watch upgrades, which in my opinion were the most compelling thing announced that day. The Apple Watch product line has, in its short roughly three-year life-to-date (originally announced in September 2014, although product shipments didn't begin until April 2015) experienced rapid updates of both software and hardware, and equally rapid obsolescence of the latter. The original model, retroactively referred to now as “Series 0” and no longer sold (as of September 2016), was based on the initial “S1” single-core 32-bit ARM SoC. Its successor, the Series 1 announced in September 2016 and still sold as I write this, ran on a dual-core version of the S1, the S1P.
Also announced in September 2016, but rendered obsolete just one year later, was the Series 2, which was based on the supposedly faster S2 application processor and added two key features to the Series 1 foundation: built-in GPS and water resistance. The catalyst for its obsolescence was the base Series 3 model unveiled in September 2017, which supports these same two enhancements but runs on an even faster S3 SoC. And built on top of the base Series 3 foundation is the cellular-enhanced version, the one I'm most intrigued with (at least from a capabilities standpoint … the $399-and-beyond price tag, not including monthly carrier charges, gives me pause). With its built-in Wi-Fi and LTE voice-plus-data transceivers, you can use it to send and receive calls and text messages, emails, etc … albeit with a predictable battery life “hit.”
Although the Apple Watch product line has seen lots of churn so far, the differentiation has settled down, at least in my mind. The primary demarcation (setting aside water resistance) seems to be whether or not you'll also be packing an iPhone whenever you're using the Apple Watch. If so, the Series 1 (starting at $249, although Best Buy is selling it for $199) will likely suffice. The iPhone has GPS and wireless WAN connectivity covered, and the Bluetooth tether to the watch takes care of notifications, etc. Conversely, if you put the iPhone away when you exercise but still want to track how far you've traveled, that's where the base Series 3 with built-in GPS (and water resistance for swimming, etc) fits in. And if you want to retain full-blown connectivity when away from the smartphone, there's the Series 3 cellular edition. The Android Wear crowd with which I currently hang contains only one cellular-inclusive model, the LT Watch Urbane LTE 2nd Edition, which was originally scheduled to launch in the fall of 2015 but was (temporarily) canceled at the last minute, finally coming to market six months later. More recently, Huawei has unveiled the Watch 2 Pro, but at least for now it's sold only in China. It'll be curious to see if Apple's Watch 3 moves motivate Google's partners to release more models. Frankly, I'm skeptical about the bigger-picture health of the Android Wear ecosystem.
I'm not going to spend much time on the belatedly 4K-upgraded Apple TV, because it doesn't deserve the attention. This particular product line has long gotten short shrift within Apple, reflected in its diminutive market share versus alternatives from Roku and Amazon. Then again, Google isn't doing any better with Android TV, so at least Apple's got some underperforming company. And the new Apple TV model, at least in my opinion, isn't going to do anything to notably shift the streaming media player market share dynamics in Apple's direction.
Next up was the iPhone 8. My doubts about its relevance begin with its naming. Up to this point, beginning with the iPhone 3G in 2008, Apple had intermingled “S” upgrades between generation changes (3G, 4, 5, and 6). The “S” updates (3GS, 4S, 5S, and 6S) were nearly-to-completely identical to their forebears from an external appearance standpoint; the upgrades were focused on the internals … CPU, GPU, front and rear cameras, cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, DRAM, flash memory, and the like.
This time, however, Apple decided to break the pattern, following up September 2016's iPhone 7 (and larger-LCD 7 Plus) with not the iPhone 7S, but the iPhone 8. The iPhone 8 pretty much looks just like an iPhone 7, with the exception of the baffling switch to a fragile glass back. Then again, the iPhone 7 pretty much looked just like an iPhone 6S, with the exception of the baffling removal of the analog headphone jack … Yes, there were requisite updates to the iPhone 8's SoC, cameras, and the like. And Apple finally added wireless charging capabilities to the platform this time (therefore rationalizing the glass back). But all in all, it was a “meh” update, and lackadaisical sales so far (both in an absolute sense and relative to the still-sold, less expensive iPhone 7 precursor) bear out my pessimism.
Finally came the iPhone X (which according to Apple, should be referred to as the “Apple Ten”). What happened to the iPhone 9? Good question, probably the same thing that happened to the iPhone 7S. Or maybe Apple was just copying Microsoft, which similarly skipped the “9” iteration of its Windows line (sorry, couldn't resist). In all seriousness, the naming choice probably at least in part reflects the fact that this year is the 10th anniversary of the launch of the original iPhone. And at least from an appearance standpoint, the iPhone X is a valid next bearer of the product line tradition torch. From a functional standpoint, however, I'm more lukewarm. And then there's that $999 starting price …
The iPhone X runs on the same Apple-designed A11 Bionic application processor that powers the iPhone 8. It's two key differentiators are its edge-to-edge OLED display, marking the first time non-LCD technology has appeared in the iPhone line (the Apple Watch has used OLED from the very beginning), and the “notch”-creating and front-mounted structured light camera assembly that supports FaceID face-recognition unlock and other depth sensing features. The OLED, while visually stunning, has previously been offered on any number of Android (and even now-dead Windows Phone) handsets for several years now (not that “Apple the Android follower” is anything new), and shares the same long-term OLED reliability concerns that I’ve regularly been writing about for even longer.
FaceID, while reportedly fast and generally reliable, isn’t perfect and raises valid privacy, security and other concerns. FaceID's replacement for the longstanding “home” button will force operation transitions that will cause some users discomfort, at least in the short term, until they retrain their muscles and brains. The depth camera yield is also reportedly the key reason for the limited availability at launch, although it doesn’t seem to have notably hurt Apple's historically high profit margins. And that's because, as I previously alluded, the iPhone X starts at $999 for the 64GB model, extending up to $1,149 for the 256GB model.
Apple has a long history of releasing “boutique” products that end up flopping due to ridiculously high pricing versus what the product delivered … the G4 Cube, for example (one of which I admittedly own for historical sake), or the iPod Hi-Fi, or the Lisa, or the Newton. I daresay the iPhone X has a solid chance of eventually being added to the list. Admittedly, its “bragging rights” potential is more compelling than was the case for some of the others, since it can be carried around in the owner's pocket versus requiring a show-off visit to the owner's home. And I have no doubt that some consumers devoted a disproportionate percentage of their Christmas shopping budget (for themselves, of course) to it, to the detriment of other potential purchases (or, alternatively, went even further into credit card debt in order to acquire it). But I can't help but wonder, when I hear of recent iPhone X shipment time improvements, whether this shift reflects improved supply, decreased demand, or some combination of the two.
Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Sound off in the comments, please!
—Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter .