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  • Apple and Innovation: Are There No Surprises?

    July 11th, 2014

    So the tech media has, for months, been inundated with supposed supply chain leaks and other tales about the next iPhone, presumably the iPhone 6. If the stories are true, there will be two versions; one with a 4.7-inch screen, and the other with a 5.5-inch screen that represents Apple’s first foray into the world of phablets.

    The feature set, predictably, speaks of an A8 processor, perhaps quad-core, a better camera and maybe other new hardware features. There’s nothing here that seems more than the natural evolution of the iPhone. It is not going where no previous iPhone has gone before except as a natural outgrowth of improving technologies.

    As a practical matter, little of the information should come as a surprise. You don’t have to have supply chain leaks, if they exist, to expect a linear progression in iPhone advancement.

    The larger screen, for example. Although the iPhone at first had a larger display than the competition, competitors desperately sought ways to beat Apple at something, anything. If it wasn’t a feature that didn’t work so well, such as the notorious tilt to scroll capability of the Samsung Galaxy S4, it was a larger display. Rather than stick with one size, each product iteration had to receive a larger screen, even if the difference was hardly significant. Consider the jump from five inches to 5.1-inches starting with the Galaxy S5.

    Apple hasn’t actually dismissed the concept of using larger displays. Tim Cook has said on more than one occasion that Apple is looking for improvements in problems that allegedly afflict the larger smartphones, such as inferior image quality, poor battery life and other issues. You can argue whether or not he has a point. Certainly the Samsung’s OLED display was pretty good except in bright sunlight, and that problem is not as bad in the latest models.

    Regardless, it’s also true that customers do want larger smartphones, and phablets appear to have caught on in Asia, a part of the world that Apple focuses heavily on. So, at the risk of making the iPhone lineup a little more complicated, it’s only natural for Apple to find ways to meet the demand.

    Anyway, if the iPhone 6 is precisely as predicted, there will be few surprises, unless Apple throws in a few added hardware features that haven’t been anticipated. Consider the addition of 64-bit in the A7 and the M7 coprocessor last year. This year, there’s talk of a new haptic feedback engine, so does that mean you’ll feel the buzz when you type? On Android, that feature is merely annoying.

    But if there’s little else, will industry analysts and tech pundits emit a collective yawn at the next Apple media event, expected to happen in early September, because everything or most everything was known in advance?

    What about the next iPad and iPad mini? Well, the former had a major upgrade last year, and the latter received a Retina display, so what’s left beyond maybe Touch ID support? But if iPad sales continue to flatten, perhaps Apple will devise something unique, but the advance chatter isn’t showing anything significant.

    We may know a little more about the rumored iWatch, if only because of Apple’s recent hires from the fashion and fitness industries. That clearly demonstrates something is afoot, and the HealthKit and HomeKit of iOS 8 seem tailor made for a wearable.

    Again, no surprises, but if the new products are less than anticipated, which is hardly likely, there will be disappointment. But to some, whatever Apple does is a disappointment.

    As to Macs, there’s a published report claiming sales declined in the U.S. the last quarter from the same source that reported a decline in the previous quarter. But since yet another source reported the opposite in the previous quarter, it’s hard to take any of it seriously. Overall, Mac sales have been growing ahead of the PC industry, but the real figures — rather than the surveys and speculation — won’t be known until Apple releases them later this month. That doesn’t stop the media from happily reporting that Mac sales are falling.

    Meantime, Apple has a dilemma with Mac refreshes. Intel’s next generation chip, code-named Broadwell, is supposed to offer genuine performance improvements that some have estimated at up to 30%. If true, it would represent a huge change compared to previous chip upgrades, which have focused more on power efficiency than raw performance.

    Regardless, you probably won’t see Macs with Broadwell inside this year because of Intel’s ongoing production problems. While the low-end chips are expected soon, the higher-end parts that Apple uses may not arrive until the end of 2014 or later, meaning they won’t show up until 2015 in new Macs. So any product refreshes this year may be similar to the recent MacBook Air upgrade. There will be slightly faster processors, and a slightly lower price to move hardware. Period. I suppose Apple could do something fancy with the packaging, but not the actual hardware. And, no, I do not expect to see an ARM-powered Mac anytime soon, though it might show up eventually if Intel continues to encounter delays in shipping new product.

    Then there’s the Apple TV, and the report that the Roku lineup is moving ahead, even if Apple has sold more units worldwide. Apple TV software improvements have been confined to minor feature updates and more channels. Is there a surprise this fall? At least with the iPhone, you can believe in supply chain leaks since they ultimately end up being close to the mark. I suppose Apple could pop an A7 or A8 with more memory into the next Apple TV and use the same form factor. But Apple is also rumored to be working on something altogether new to change the direction of the industry.

    Surprises are good.

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