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The Apple-Needs-to-Catch-Up Myth Revisited

So there are even more commentators that suggest, yet again, that Apple has fallen behind the curve when it comes to smartphones. Even as sales of the iPhone continue to climb, and there will be a huge amount of publicity over this week’s media event to introduce the 2013 models, it will never be enough for some people.

Never enough?

Well, this is the feature bloat game revisited. Apple is expected to match configurations and features, more or less, with the competition. This is clearly a game the company hasn’t played, and the companies that follow the more-is-always-better philosophy may sell a decent amount of product, but not at a decent profit.

This feature matchup gambit dates back even to the iPod, where the competition would add FM radios and other features but were still very much unable to match Apple’s sales. These days, however, there are many more Android handsets sold (or at least shipped) than iPhones, but most are offered at fire sale prices, offering ancient versions of Google’s OS and very basic hardware features. People may buy boatloads of them, but those sales do not necessarily deliver acceptable profits to the handset makers.

That’s clearly nothing Apple needs to match.

But when it’s not price, what about the screen size? Just the other day, a less-informed acquaintance boasted about the larger screen size of a phablet — one of those smartphones with oversized screens — and how it was so much better than what Apple offered. I could have reminded him about OS usability, the quality of apps, and the seamless user experience. Instead, I suggested he buy a clown’s costume so he’d have packets large enough to store that phablet. No sense arguing with someone who isn’t willing to listen.

The argument about a larger display might seem to make sense, but how big can a smartphone be before it becomes too big for easy portability? Consider the Samsung Galaxy S4, with a five-inch screen. Wow! It’s bright enough under normal room lighting, but totally washes out in sunlight. Really washes out, and that’s known limitation of the AMOLED display technology that Samsung uses.

But it’s five inches! Wow! Why can’t Apple duplicate that?

Well, there are published reports Apple is planning to build a larger iPhone — next year, but don’t expect the picture to disappear in sunlight. And since this article is being written ahead of this week’s media event,  perhaps I’ll have to amend this paragraph. We’ll see.

Regardless, not having a larger display doesn’t mean the iPhone is behind the curve, nor is Apple necessarily not keeping up with technology by failing to load oodles and oodles of useless apps and other features on a mobile gadget. That might look good in the spec sheets, but it doesn’t necessarily mean those features do any good.

I remind some people, for example, that many of the so-called advantages of the Galaxy S4 are limited to the bullet points. Such features as Tilt to Scroll don’t always work, and when they do, not so well, so why bother? Worse, the 16GB Galaxy S4 is so stuffed with junk that only half of that space is available for your apps and other stuff. How is that playing catch up?

Of course, the PowerPoint addicts who adore those bullet points aren’t going to accept the fact that having the most isn’t the same as having the best. Sure, I suppose they can suggest that Apple executives are just spinning the claim that it’s harder to decide which features to remove rather than which features to add. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

However, Apple can’t satisfy those critics regardless of what they do. There’s even a story this week claiming that Apple has been building the same smartphone for six years, despite all the changes over that timeframe. That may be true about the basic form factor, but the same is true for every other smartphone out there with a touch rather than physical keyboard. So does the claim hold true for Samsung, HTC and Motorola? Maybe Apple should build a triangular iPhone next.

Wait, I shouldn’t said that! Somebody will now claim that I am passing along that very rumor.

Besides, when you look at Apple’s history, you’ll see the company isn’t always first out with a feature, but will adopt that feature when the early problems appear to have been resolved. So Apple wasn’t the first out of the starting gate with an 802.11ac router, one that sports the new Wi-Fi standard that promises (but rarely delivers) throughput over one gigabit. After the new AirPort Extreme arrived, some reviewers criticized Apple for failing to provide every single possible customization option on an AirPort, even though a mere fraction of users care or benefit from those things. For those who need every possible obscure router feature in clumsy a Web interface, just buy something else. That’s not Apple’s way.

Nor is it Apple’s way to build a product because someone who writes a tech or financial blog tells them it’s the right and proper thing to do.