Are New iPhones Evolution or Revolution?

The new iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S have been unveiled. There were very few surprises with either model. We saw pretty much what was expected, although the new 64-bit processor seemed to surprise some. But are these new phones revolutionary or evolutionary? I’d say the former, and not the latter.

How Much Room For Truly New?

The challenge for Apple, or anyone for that matter, is that there aren’t a lot of revolutionary things that can be done within the box we define as the “smartphone”. Sure, we all welcome more storage, better cameras, better battery life and new sensors. But nothing added to any smartphone in the past 3 years has been so revolutionary as to be unexpected. Even the Retina display isn’t a complete surprise. The addition of new wireless technologies like NFC and Bluetooth LE are all to be expected. Even Apple’s fingerprint sensor isn’t entirely new: I had an iPaq PDA back in the late 1990’s that had a similar feature, albeit with a different implementation.

The only “leap” of sorts for the iPhone is the move to 64-bit, and even that isn’t that surprising. Running in a 64-bit world has been pretty normal for users of personal computers and servers, at least for the past few years. The fact that it finally appeared in a smartphone isn’t entirely a shock to the system. Otherwise, everything was pretty much what we get from all new smartphones: faster this, lower-power that, more of that other thing.

The 64-bit vs. More Cores Question

I saw one comment on the CNet live blog, where the author was fascinated to see how this 64-bit vs. 4-cores thing plays out. For what most people do with their phones, a faster processor will likely have a bigger impact they can see than more cores. We saw this with PC’s, when they started to add cores. A lot of people didn’t really notice any huge speed gains over and above what you would expect with faster clock rates. Adding more cores hardly ever seemed to result in a speed increase for most people. The only real “speed jump” came when more and more people moved to 64-bit versions of their software. Then the processors, which were 64-bit before the software was, could really open it up.

But why is that? Simple: unless you do something to multithread your application, extra cores won’t do much for your own software. You get some gains for those that utilize garbage collection (because the GC can run on a separate thread, and thus a separate core). For people running more than one application under load, the speed difference was sometimes apparent. But for your average user, who typically uses one thing at a time, the extra cores didn’t help. The software developers never designed and built their software to take advantage of the extra cores and the parallelism that could potentially enhance performance.

I fully expect Apple will move from a 2-core to a 4-core (or even 8-core) processor in the next round. We might even see a 4-core processor for the next iPad refresh. But for most people, it is mainly an interesting tidbit they can talk about during a cocktail party. In the real world, few people will really notice the difference. Don’t get me wrong, some people will see an improvement. But they appear to be the exception and not the rule.

What About The Rest?

But what about the rest of the features on the iPhone 5C and 5S? They do make for very nice phones. Apple has focused on some useful but iterative improvements. But I don’t see anything world-changing here. As a whole, they don’t really leap the iPhone miles ahead of the competition. They remain competitive, and should be for the next year until the next round of new phones is released. These phones, though, are more evolution than revolution. And I wasn’t expecting them to be anything but that. The same goes for any new phone from anyone else right now.

The iPhone (like its competitors) isn’t played out, not by a long shot. There are still plenty of growth opportunities for the iPhone, and smartphones in general, given that we’ve just crossed halfway in terms of the installed base. But these devices are starting to reach segments that don’t want “revolutionary”. These are the early and late majority, and they want safe, prudent and proven. They aren’t looking for trendy or hip. They just want something that works, and that they can believe in from the moment they take the package home.

So, the big question: will I get one? Probably not, but never say never :-). I’m happy with my iPhone 5. It does what I want. I’m more interested in what comes next with the iPad and the MacBook Pro. Sure, I may get an iPhone 5S if the budget can take it, but I probably won’t be waiting with baited to submit my Apple Store order on the 20th for an iPhone 5S. And there isn’t enough in the iPhone 5C that I would need one in my inventory of test machines. Technologically, my iPhone 5 (and even my iPhone 4S) have what I need for some of the projects I’m considering. Again, I’ll never say “never”, but the probability of either or both of these being bought by me are relatively low for now.