Image: Josh Edelson/AFP

iPhone X Machina

“The future of the smartphone” is the same as it ever was. It doesn’t need reinventing, it needs interrogating.

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Sep 15 2017, 3:06pm

Image: Josh Edelson/AFP

Brian Merchant is the editor of Terraform and the author of 'The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone.'

Make no mistake, the iPhone X is, as Tim Cook put it on Tuesday, "the future of the smartphone." So was the iPhone 6. And the 4, and the 3G, and the original model, which debuted in 2007. Hence the Roman 'X'. Cook said Apple had been working towards the X for a decade, which, again, is true enough, in that the iPhone product line is now almost exactly 10 years old. Some are arguing that the X is not the future of the smartphone, just another iteration in its ongoing incremental improvement—but what could be a more accurate description of its (or our) future than that?

We have, after all, settled firmly into the age of the smartphone, and its foreseeable horizon is dotted with more and slightly better models. Why would Apple want to rush headlong out of such an era, even if it seems a bit dully-shaped now, since the iPhone has been its most profitable harbinger? For marketing reasons, Apple had to—or at least chose to—tout the 10th anniversary iPhone as something special, as a great leap forward, an exemplar of innovation that might sate the critics who complain that the fruit company's capacity to invent died with Steve Jobs. It rolled out its famous "One More Thing" teaser, which is typically reserved for brand new products like the Apple Watch and the iPad, intending to raise the stakes, to underline the X. Investors didn't bite—Apple stock began to fall after its announcement.

The truth is, the X is another iPhone. Another good-looking upgrade, with improved specs and features and design tweaks that will delight some and turn others off. Goodbye Home button, hey, notch. RIP headphone jack (which stayed gone after disappearing from the 7), and hello, FaceID. X is more expensive—but not extraordinarily more expensive—than its predecessors, which are aimed upmarket anyway.

But the fundamentals of the iPhone, as designed by the original team 10 years ago—multitouch-based interface, app-gridded homescreen, animation-friendly UI, etc—remain largely unmoved. "You look at the base assumptions, and what's changed?" as Tony Fadell, the SVP in charge of the first iPhone's hardware, said of the original design while I was researching my book about its genesis. "The business model changed. Sure, better camera, better whatever. But the fundamentals have not shifted since. It's always bigger, faster. But nothing has really changed. There was no fundamental shift in the idea that would allow you to use it all. Version 1 was the right thing. Even though you had to iterate and kill, kill, kill—that's what happens when you get it fundamentally correct. That's what tells you have a classic device."

Image: Justin Sullivan/Getty

The fact that the classic device was still very much intact on Tuesday left the circus around the X feeling a little, well, confounded. This was supposed to be, as Bloomberg wrote, "Apple's biggest event in years," and sure, it served to introduce the press to the company's new headquarters and the Steve Jobs Theater. But the iPhone X itself doesn't do a lot we haven't seen tried on smartphones before—Samsung has experimented with bezel-to-bezel OLED screens and facial recognition. And the deluge of leaks from up the supply chain and inside Cupertino itself, ensured, as usual, that nothing would be much of a surprise come event day. We tune into the game anyways, in part because Apple has so expertly organized it, and because we all want to play along. Apple wrings reams of obsessive media coverage out of events like this in a way that no other company can, and the chief narrative question that it's constantly addressing is—can Apple still innovate? Even in the post-Jobs era? (On my book tour and in interviews, I probably am asked this more than anything else.)

But it's the wrong question. Even if it likely annoys Tim Cook and co. to no end, it obscures what should be more pressing ones. We shouldn't ask "can Apple innovate"—of course it can and does—but rather, can Apple be a good steward of the innovation it has unleashed? No company defines the contours of the medium more than Apple, and the iterative choices it makes ripples outward across all smartphone futures.

Apple should feel less pressure to innovate, and, perhaps, more to answer some of those questions about what it's shaping that future up to look like

For instance, do we want advanced facial recognition technology that maps our visage with biometric data points? Or might we prefer one that we slide to unlock with a finger? One seems the result of an innovation arms race—one with some potentially alarming security implications—the other a lovingly rendered design flourish.

What about details deemed more arcane, like repairability? Do we care about openness, both in regards to hardware and software? These questions, and plenty others, like, maybe, 'Are our cutting edge phones ethically manufactured, out of materials mined in the best possible conditions?' are altogether absent from post-iPhone Day chatter, even as a new model with potentially even higher profit margins rolls out.

Instead, ten years on, looking at the same super-successful black rectangle, investors, analysts, and tech pundits insist Apple, the most valuable company on the planet, needs a massively disruptive invention; a car, or iTunes-scale revolution in the TV industry, largely, maybe, because it is a little boring to opine about that rectangle every year. Something big, something by, and for, the crazy ones. Something totally unexpected. They want a deus ex machina for a conflict, a plot hole that does not really exist. Apple, meanwhile, has to assert, over and over, that it has produced exactly that. That it's continually creating revolutionary devices at a mythologically Jobsian rate.

Yet with the iPhone, Apple has created the most profitable product, maybe in human history. It has no sound incentive to rock its own boat anytime soon. The X shows, if anything, that we're perhaps even further off another mobile computing disruption than many thought—that we may have another X years of Apple dominating the smartphone market with tweaks and shifts in the margins of the era's most ubiquitous consumer technology. The future of the smartphone has been here for some time, whether we unlock it with our face or our fingers. Apple should feel less pressure to innovate, and, perhaps, more to answer some of those questions about what it's shaping that future up to look like.

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