iPhone 6: A delicate compromise

iPhone 6: A delicate compromise

Summary: Apple already sells iPhones as fast as it can make them almost, so Apple only needs to make a better iPhone, not one that's revolutionarily better. But that "better iPhone" will be the fruits of engineers at Apple carefully balancing out a number of variables.

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TOPICS: Mobility, Apple, iOS, iPhone
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The difference between the tech rumor mill and reality that we inhabit is that the world of fantasy is one devoid of constraints. Sitting behind a keyboard it is possible to dream up a myriad of magical devices that operate outside of the laws of physics.

The motto is, "if you can dream it, then it must be possible."

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However, back in the real world, things are a lot more reserved. Devices have to operate within the limitations of the laws of physics, and Apple's upcoming iPhone 6 is no different. While Apple would like us to believe that its devices are magical, the truth is they are not.

Building a successful consumer electronics device involves delicately balancing four interconnected variables.  

  • Power
  • Performance
  • Usability
  • Price

Let us take a look at each one of these variable in turn.

Power

I'm going to start with what I see as the most important variable – power.

Mobile devices rely on their built-in battery, and everything the device does draws on this. While the biggest power draws are going to be the display, the processor and the radios, everything the device does sucks on the battery, and no matter how small the energy consumption, milliamps quickly add up.

When it comes to an updated iPhone, faster processors, bigger displays, better cameras, faster wi-fi and cellular, and more stuff happening in the background all put an additional strain on the battery. On the upside, as technology gets smaller, the power requirements do go down slightly.

Now in an ideal world, Apple could just bolt a giant battery onto the iPhone and not worry about power drain, but that would have a detrimental effect on usability. The trend is towards lighter and thinner devices, and this severely limits the space left for a battery.

Rumors that Apple might be getting ready to bump up the iPhone's screen to 4.7-inch or even 5.5-inch might seem bad for battery life, because a larger display means a greater demand for power. However, a larger display means more internal space for the battery, assuming thickness is unchanged. A larger screen could even pave the way for a thinner iPhone 6 while still leaving more volume for a larger battery.

The bottom line is that every milliamp has to be accounted for, and there's no room for overenthusiastic engineering.

Performance

Everyone wants their new iPhone to do more than their old iPhone did, and this means cramming it with faster hardware. But faster hardware puts a pressure on power and price, so the sky isn't the limit here.

Another factor to consider when it comes performance is that Apple tightly controls the iOS ecosystem, can engineer the iPhone to offer performance that will keep it relevant for the next three years or so without having to over-engineer the hardware. There's also little point in stuffing the iPhone 6 with power components that the software cannot utilize.

So the trick is to make it better than the last version, pack it with features that will keep it in the game for the next few years, but at the same time not waste money or battery life on making it too powerful.

Usability

Since the final product has to be usable, this means having adequate performance and battery life without having to resort to carrying the battery in a backpack. It also means building a device that's ergonomic and easy to use.

A lot of the iPhone 6 rumors have pointed to the fact that Apple is once again getting ready to bump up the screen size of the iPhone. The original iPhone shipped with a 3.5-inch display, which Apple initially said was the perfect size for using the handset single-handedly. This was increased to 4-inch with the iPhone 5, again with claims from Apple that this still allowed for single-handed use. If Apple does indeed bump the screen size to 4.7-inches and beyond, then it will be interesting to see if/how Apple addresses the issue of usability.

Price

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Devices have to be built to a tight budget, especially given that overspending by a few cents can quickly mount up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the iPhone Apple is treading a thin line where it is designing and manufacturing a mass market device but making it feel like a customized, bespoke item. It is in essence building something to be marketed as a luxury item, but without the crazy pricing of luxury items such as high-end wristwatches and sports cars.

Apple has more wriggle room than most companies give its buoyant +30 percent margin, but it would be reckless and foolhardy to start eating away at this to create a "better" iPhone because it's hard to stop doing this down the line as consumers demand more and more for their money.

The bottom line

The iPhone 6 will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It will build on the current iPhone platform and offer a platform that will remain relevant for the next few years. Remember that when pundits are criticizing the iPhone 6 for not being good enough.

Apple already sells iPhones as fast as it can make them almost, so Apple only needs to make a better iPhone, not one that's revolutionarily better. And that "better iPhone" will be the fruits of engineers at Apple carefully balancing out the variables I've outlined above. 

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Apple, iOS, iPhone

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68 comments
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  • Same old spew

    new iPhone is Ok, but cleary Apple lost its way and is becoming boring. Seems to be focuses on operations rather than innovation. Look to other companies to innovate (Google, Microsoft).
    Sean Foley
    • Hold on

      @ Sean Foley - Risky comment, you might find this comment embarrassing on Sept. 9th...
      the6car@...
      • Unlikely

        We always know what Apple announce based on their acquisitions. They were really scraping the bottom of the barrel going with an antiquated and easily hacked fingerprint scanner.
        Buster Friendly
        • It's official

          That comment makes you a troll.
          rfoto
          • Fail

            Sorry but a personal attack means you agree with me, don't want to admit, and are jumping into irrational defensive mode.
            Buster Friendly
          • I would rarely make a personal attack.

            But I have to think you made that ridiculous statement about the fingerprint reader only to raise hackles and that is the definition of a troll.
            rfoto
          • He's right though

            The iPhone's fingerprint scanner has been duped in several different ways. It is far from secure.
            blarelli
          • No, he was wrong when he said "easily hacked."

            Here's a comment from someone with actual knowledge...

            "Hacking TouchID relies upon a combination of skills, existing academic research and the patience of a Crime Scene Technician."

            https://blog.lookout.com/blog/2013/09/23/why-i-hacked-apples-touchid-and-still-think-it-is-awesome/
            rfoto
          • Empty claims

            various people have claimed to dupe the iPhone's fingerprint scanner.

            None have demonstrated an ability to repeat the process under independent scrutiny.
            Henry 3 Dogg
          • Disagree

            The iP5S's fingerprint scanner has been duped multiple times in laboratories. That's the kicker though, I've yet to hear about any reports of real world users getting their iPhones hacked via use of the fingerprint scanner. What is the likelihood of getting a useable (duplicate) print of the person's finger from whom you just stole the phone from?

            And if you want to say the screen of the iPhone has their prints on it, I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you. The iPhone's screen is full of fingerprint smudges. Nobody presses their fingers into the screen and then lifts it off for a perfect print. We swipe and swipe some more when using the device which effectively smudges those prints.
            Maha888
          • Digressed to name calling

            You have to learn how to control your "Hackles"
            MLinh
          • No, trolling is a digression...

            ...from intelligent conversation.
            rfoto
      • People will buy them like crazy

        people are stupid, look at all the hands up don't shoot morons, so easily convinced to do something
        everss02
    • Boring, maybe

      But they sure are printing money over there at Apple and people can't get enough of their products. Bleeding edge isn't always the place to be - Apple's super-high customer satisfaction is, in part, due to them not taking so many chances with unproven technologies in the products, and waiting for them to mature before Apple adopts them.
      IthacaMatt
      • Considered more fashion

        Apple tends to be considered more fashion than technology. You'll often see their stores among other fashion stores. The problem with fashion is it's always temporary.
        Buster Friendly
        • Funny how that fashion

          always seems to reappear in other peoples' products. I thought people only mimicked what was successful?
          Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • Was there a point?

            Was there a point there? The fashion industry is full of copies.
            Buster Friendly
          • Yes there was a point, and you well know it

            when Apple does something with the design of desktop systems, other systems quickly follow.... beige boxes disappeared quite quickly, once Apple ditched their own beige boxes. All in ones that are mostly screen started mysteriously popping up once the iMac looked that way. Phones didn't look anything like iPhones before the iPhone - and soon after, they all did. Slate computers dropped all their grey lines and visible bezels once the iPad came out... the Surface, for instance, looks rather surprisingly like an iPad.

            So if Apple's fashionability is so frivolous - why do vendors you favour seem to work fairly hard to follow those fashions? It obviously means something to them.
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • Interesting thing....

            ...is that Apple phones/tablets have been a "fad" since 2007. That's almost a decade that their phones have been on top. Also, look at any commercial. Windows compares their phone to the iPhone. Samsung compares their phones/tablets to the iPhone/iPad. If their phones are so much better, than why do they still have to compare their phone to the iPhone?

            I agree that the Android phones and sometimes the MS phones have more capability than the iPhone, but no phone has come close to the reliability of the iPhone. I have owned and used all of them. Before some fan goes and trashes Apple for lack of innovation or not having bleeding edge, they don't need them. Once the feature is solid, they add the feature. My Galaxy Note 3 has TONS of "cool" features, most of which don't work right. I like all of the phones for different reasons.....everyone should simply be allowed to, without getting pissed because someone likes a different phone.
            Stormborn
          • More interesting...

            Is that why we sat through all of those 'I'm a Mac and I'm a PC' commercials? If Apple's computers/OS's were so much better, why did they have to compare them to all the others?

            Not trolling, I have to use both professionally and keep a Mac at home because quite frankly the $1,000 27" 2560x1440 display is more important to me than the $800 computer shoehorned in the back of it when I browse and read email.
            ccutright