Apple has first interesting product launch for four years

Back in 2010 Apple looked a serious danger to take over the world. Sales of the iPhone had gone exponential and a mere three years after disrupting the mobile phone market beyond recognition, Apple launched the first iPad and did a similar number on personal computing. The iPhone 4 was an impressive upgrade to an established hit and the expectation was that Apple would set the tone for the rest of the technology industry on an annual basis.

But a year later all we got was the iPhone 4S, which was a nice phone, but essentially a minor upgrade on the 4, with Siri thrown in for good measure. That’s fine, we thought, even Apple can’t set the world on fire every year. Wait until it goes up a whole new number to 5 – that’s when the real innovation will kick in. A year later and the anticipated spec upgrades were accompanied by a slightly larger screen, and that was it, again somewhat of an anti-climax.

The buzz leading up to last year’s launch was that Apple was going to respond to explosive smartphone demand in developing markets by introducing a cheaper version of the iPhone. In the end it repackaged the year-old device in colourful plastic, called it the 5c, and didn’t reduce its price at all. The fingerprint reader in the 5s was nice, but once more evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

Fork in the road

Now Apple had decided to widen the fork in its handset roadmap and launched devices of different sizes, the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.3-inch iPhone 6 Plus. Apple seems to be positioning the Plus as half way to an iPad in terms of some functionality, such as a landscape display mode, but otherwise screen size seems to be the key differentiator between the two new iPhones. Despite that, Apple is charging $100 more (which will probably translate to £100 over here) for the Plus than the regular iPhone 6 – not something generally done by other smartphone vendors for their plus-sized handsets. Oh, and the 5c experiment seems to have been abandoned at the first opportunity.

The Mobile Wallet

The concept of mobile payments/money/wallet, etc has been around for some time and many major companies have had a go at it. Some progress has been made but with so many stakeholders needing to collaborate in order to provide a coherent, comprehensive useful mobile wallet ecosystem, a strong catalyst has been lacking.

By moving into the mobile payments game with Apple Pay, Apple could well provide just the push needed, something CEO Tim Cook was keen to stress at the launch. Cook rightly pointed out that user experience is key – it has to be easier to pay with your phone than otherwise – and the Touch ID fingerprint reader introduced in the 5s is key to this. Apple’s belated introduction of NFC contactless technology was also confirmed, allowing people to pay by just tapping/swiping the phone at a touch point.

The introduction of one-time payment numbers and a dynamic security codes seem to be key to providing the security reassurance that has also hampered efforts to get the mobile wallet going thus far, with people worrying about putting all their eggs in one basket. It seems that your card number is not even stored on the phone, for extra peace of mind.

Smart watch

Wearables have been the hot hardware category of the past year or so, but while the likes of Sony, Samsung and latterly Motorola have launched some promising gear, the use-case for smart watches has, to date, been far from compelling.

In by far the most interesting Apple launch event for years, the company revealed its belated entry into this category with the Apple Watch. With such small screens, the UI has always been a major challenge for smart watches – there’s just not much screen real estate to play with – so Apple has focused on this, as you would expect. One significant feature is a dial on the side that allows additional interaction, such as zooming and interface navigation.

The screen UI itself appears to be quite novel and sensors on the underside also contribute to the functionality, including a degree of both gesture and voice recognition (including Siri). It has a touch screen that apparently also senses the amount of force you use and alters the resulting command accordingly. The screen is square, which is a slight disappointment as circular screens make for a more intuitive replacement of the conventional watch, and the Apple Watch too comes in two sizes, presumably with the preferences of men and women in mind. As you would expect, there is strong initial developer support for the watch, and health/fitness is a major feature. Also, it looks like it supports Apple Pay, which is a nice touch.

Lots of launches

In summary it seems like Apple has been in a holding pattern for the past three years and has finally revealed a bunch of stuff it has been working on for a while. The two new phones feature the first major industrial design overhaul since the iPhone 4 and the Apple watch seems likely to significantly raise the bar in the wearables category. But the most significant announcement is probably Apple Pay, not just for Apple, but for the catalysing effect it could have on mobile commerce on the whole.

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