Apple Goes 'Back to the Future' with Smaller iPhone and iPad Pro models

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ALL OF THE EVENTS AND REACTION FROM THE MARCH 21 KEYNOTE

So, it happened: the latest big Apple keynote, at the company’s Cupertino campus on March 21, and it’s fair to say that what we got tallied pretty well with what we expected. The headline announcements were undoubtedly those of new, smaller versions of the iPhone and iPad Pro that harked back to Apple models of the recent past in more ways than simply their dimensions. However, there were many other events from the stage to get Apple fans of all stripes excited.

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED

In the run-up to the Cupertino giant’s Easter event, there was - as per usual - plenty of speculation about what would be unveiled, centering on the prospect of a 9.7-inch version of the normally 12.9-inch iPad Pro, a 4-inch iPhone bearing the SE name and updates to the MacBook and iMac ranges. Sure enough, the first two possibilities came to fruition in some style, although we got also new bands and a price drop for the Apple Watch, an updated tvOS for the Apple TV and the release of iOS 9.3.

Having said that, there was inevitably a certain elephant in the room at Infinite Loop, one that CEO Tim Cook wasted little time in banishing. After a timeline flashback to mark Apple’s 40th birthday, Cook reiterated his company’s staunch position on customer privacy and security in reference to its high-profile squabble with the FBI over the locked San Bernardino iPhone.

Cook certainly couldn’t be accused of trying to downplay the issue, declaring the seriousness with which Apple took the matter - and what he regarded as its responsibility to protect user data - just one day before its court date with the United States government to discuss it. But of course, this was a product launch keynote rather than a political rally, so it was appropriate that by about five minutes after the event started, Cook had already reminded the audience that the number of Apple devices around the world had now exceeded one billion.

 

FROM ENVIRONMENTAL WORK TO RESEARCHKIT AND CAREKIT

If you needed any more evidence of Apple’s pride over its self-perceived role in helping to make the world a better place, you only needed to note that Cook’s statements in relation to San Bernardino were swiftly followed by the appearance of Lisa Jackson - the company’s Vice President, Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives - to talk about its environmental goals.

Jackson, formerly Administrator of the USEnvironmental Protection Agency appointedby President Barack Obama, is the woman charged with overseeing Apple’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact, and she duly impressed with her declaration that 93% of Apple’s centers around the world are now powered by renewables. This comes just two years after the company set a goal of 100% renewability, that maximum percentage having already been reached in 24 countries, including the US, China and United Kingdom.

Shifting her focus to reuse and recycle programs, Jackson then spoke about a new research and development program, “Liam”, a robot that helps to disassemble the iPhone into its component parts for recycling purposes. She also announced a new recycling promotion, whereby Apple device owners wouldn’t need to pay a thing to hand back their old devices to the company.

ResearchKit was another of the lower-key subjects of interest at the keynote, with Apple hailing the positive impact that it had already had on healthcare in the US, citing its role in the early identification of autism in children. Then, 20 minutes into the keynote, the company announced CareKit, a framework for the development of apps for both carers and self-carers, along with news that the first CareKit app would be for Parkinson’s disease.

 

APPLE WATCH AND TV ALSO COME IN FOR SOME LOVE

As convinced as many attendees were of the very real importance of projects like CareKit, they also knew that it would not be what hogged the following day’s newspaper headlines - and nor would the Watch, which in line with widespread expectations, was not the subject of any new hardware or software developments. Instead, Cook was back to announce various new wrist straps for the device, including Woven Fabric straps and new Sport band colors.

Watchers of the Watch who hadn’t yet taken the plunge with a purchase may have also been pleased to hear that the stylish timepiece just became a bit more attainable, the 38mm Apple Sport Watch now priced at a mere $300 - $50 less than before. Of course, those with their eyes on the 18-karat-gold Apple Watch Edition still face the prospect of a more than $10,000 hole in their bank account.

Cook then moved onto the subject of the Apple TV, stating that there were now more than 5,000 apps for the device available to download. It was then revealed that tvOS was receiving a free update for owners of the latest TV, reducing the amount of on-screen text at the same time as introducing a folder system to empower users to make their home screen even cleaner and better-organized. The new tvOS’s version of Siri also now supports voice dictation for such purposes as searching through apps and password commands.

 
 
 
 

THEN, IT WAS TIME FOR THE BIG ANNOUNCEMENTS

Finally, the unveilings that the gathered press corps had truly come to see! About half an hour into the keynote, Apple was ready to start talking about the latest 4-inch iPhone. In the words of Apple’s Vice President of product marketing Greg Joswiak, “Some people simply love smaller phones. And the 4-inch phone is often their first iPhone. Some people asked and pleaded withus. So we’re calling it the iPhone SE. Our mostpowerful 4-inch phone ever.”

Although we will go into more detail about the technical specifications of the iPhone SE in a later issue, it largely resembles a smalleriPhone 5s with some of the 6’s designfeatures. Its choice of space gray, silver and gold metallic finishes is the same as that of the iPhone 6, except that rose gold has also been added. The smaller handset also houses the 6s’s 64-bit A9 chip, so there should be few complaints about performance. The 16GB base model will retail for $399, with the 64GB version rising to $499.

Then, there’s the small matter of the iPad Pro. Again, it represents a bet by Apple that devices fitting its more traditionally favored proportions will be a hit with buyers, its 9.7-inch screen being the same size as the original iPad’s and current iPad Air’s. Purchase a 9.7-inch iPad Pro, then, and you will benefit from many of the 12.9-inch Pro’s most distinctive features, including Apple Pencil support, an A9x processor and four speakers - or “Pro Sound”, to use Apple’s favored term. Prices in the US will start at $599 for the 32GB with Wi-Fi model, while the 32GB Wi-Fi + Cellular model will go for $729. Again, we will cover the new iPad Pro more in-depth in a future issue.

 

WHY APPLE MAY HAVE DECIDED TO DOWNSIZE

As you might expect, much of the commentary in relation to the keynote centered on the new headline-grabbing iPhone and iPad models. Apple’s decision to release a smaller screen size on an iPhone for the first time since the September 2014 release of the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 might seem curiously contrary in a smartphone market that has been characterized in recent years by ever-increasing display proportions. However, this only hardened the certainty of many observers that the device is aimed at existing Apple users as much as it is the market as a whole.

Those targeted users would appear to be the owners of smaller Apple handsets - such as the iPhone 5, 5s and 5c - 60% of whom have not yet upgraded to an iPhone 6 or newer, according to Cook’s own estimate. Apple is evidently convinced on the basis of this that there is a strong market to tap into for the SE, a conviction that would seem further supported by the lack of industry competition.

With so many other smartphone manufacturers having pursued the ‘bigger is better’approach with the screen sizes of their recent devices, the alternatives for prospective SE owners from the likes of Samsung, HTC and Motorola are generally poorer quality, more budget-oriented versions of their larger brethren, rather than the almost flagship-quality phone that the SE represents.

 

WHAT INDUSTRY OBSERVERS MAKE OF THE SE

By contrast to such cheaper alternatives, Apple has clearly priced the SE to catch the eyes of potential switchers from iPhones as old as the 4 or 4S, without plunging right into a budget market that would compromise its signature “premium products for premium pricing” approach. If there’s anything for the Cupertino giant to fret about, it is surely whether there will be sufficient demand for such a smaller, but still high-priced handset in a global market that has - in the words of analyst Gartner’s Annette Zimmerman - “definitely consolidated around five and six inch devices”

A research director at the firm, Zimmerman added that the SE was not really conceived “to capture a trend, but these people who are on an iPhone 4 or 5 and are quite happy with the size. It’s a way to upgrade them and obviously selling a phone with a smaller screen size helps with the margins on these devices. I don’t think it will lead to the sort of strong growth we saw after the iPhone 6 came out - that would be really difficult to top.”

The BBC’s North America technology reporter, Dave Lee, came to similar conclusions, observing that “With iPhone sales slowing, Apple needed to capture some new customers and the iPhone SE will likely do just that.” Although he added that the device was “aimed at the types ofpeople whose budget can’t quite stretch toa new premium iPhone”, he noted that the SE departed significantly from Apple’s previous attempt at a more affordable iPhone - the SE - in rejecting that handset’s “cheap and cheerful colors” in favor of a premium look more akin to top-of-the-line iPhones.

However, not everyone was convinced that Apple had struck the right formula with the SE, one of the sternest critics being Editor-In-Chief and CEO of 24/7 Wall St., Douglas A. McIntyre, who mused that “Apple management gambles that a cheap product should not undermine its image, a long-shot decision. A revenue liftfrom the iPhone SE comes with a brand valuedowngrade.” However, he was writing his words prior to the official unveiling of the device.

 

NO SHORTAGE OF HUMOR ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA PAGES

Apple may have a certain clean image, but it is not one without humanity, as its aforementioned efforts to help make the world a better place so well demonstrate. The actual owners of Apple devices are also a very down-to-earth lot, as shown by the humorous responses online to various aspects of the keynote.

One Reddit user, for instance, asked “How does one pre-order Liam?”, adding “I don’t see anything up on the store yet”, in a post that we’re not even entirely sure was a joke - although many of the responses, such as “I want it in rose gold” and “The camera bump kills it for me”, just made the thread all the more brilliant. Therewere also many comedic responses to thesmaller size screen, such as one tweet thatshowed a doctored screenshot of the Applewebsite with the words, “iPhone SE. Fine, we made a small one again.”

 
 

A LOW-KEY EVENT, BUT AN IMPORTANT ONE

Could the March 21 keynote have been slightly more... dramatic? Couldn’t we have had some more outlandish products? Have Apple’s product launches even become... dare we say it... boring? After all, this was another Apple keynote that focused on relatively minor changes to and reinterpretations of existing devices, instead of presenting an entry into an all-new category.

However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to SlashGear writer Chris Davies. While admitting that “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “The Internet had, collectively, braced itself for an underwhelming Apple event today and... was unsurprisingly unsurprised”, Davies posited that “to some extent”, he and other technology industry watchers were “our own worst enemies. Our expectations are so vast, so all-encompassing, it’s hard to imagine, shortof wheeling out a self-driving car with theApple logo, how Tim Cook & Co. might havesatisfied us.” “Encouraging updates”, Davies added, “isn’t sexy in the same way that new, segment-busting software is. But it’s arguably more important.” He was far from the only informed observer to feel this way, CCS Insight’s Geoff Blaber insisting that “A new price point and new hardware should not be underestimated. The iPhone SE and iPad Pro 9.7 could be viewed as largely iterative but nonetheless they are still crucial products for Apple as it looks to bolster growth across two crucially important categories.”

Sometimes, then, even merely incremental updates can be vital, and even more than that, with its latest keynote, Apple has demonstrated that looking back to the past can sometimes be the best way to look forward. We certainly can’t wait to get our own hands on the iPhone SE and 9.7-inch iPad Pro, not least as if there’s any company that has consistently shown the beauty and worth of gradual, step-by-step improvements in delivering the very best products, it is Apple.

by Benjamin Kerry & Gavin Lenaghan