Why We Shrug at The Greatest Telephone The World Has Ever Seen

Today at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall et al. took the stage to announce three new product in the Apple, Inc lineup: the iPhone 5, a new iPod Touch, and a new iPod Nano. It is the iPhone 5 that has been on the tech world’s mind since the iPhone 4S was released last year. It’s been the iPhone 5 on the tech world since Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011. Expectations for the device have been brewing and bubbling from a myriad of sources. Designs were leaked. Release dates were surmised, and Apple’s notoriously stringent security seemed to have been broken down. Going into today’s event the tech media, and those who follow it, had a pretty dead-on idea of what the iPhone 5 would look like. But even with all the leaks present people were doubtful. Prominent members of the tech reporting scene joked that maybe Apple was leaking a fake iPhone just to keep us waiting for the real surprise come September 12.

September 12 came. The event took place. And the phone we got was the one we anticipated.

As Jobs was wont to say, the iPhone 5 is “insanely great.” There’s no question about it. In terms of component design and tool and die manufacturing, the new device couldn’t be more different from the iPhones that preceded it. To reach micron precision of the meshing parts, two high resolution cameras are used in the assembly line to analyze the precision cut on the chassis and match the best possible piece from a bank of 720 (this all occurs in seconds). Yet on the surface the design looks similar and iterative. The screen has 172 more vertical pixels effectively making it a four inch screen while maintaining the same width. To change the screen size for the first time, when they serve a developer community who has put more than 550,000 apps on Apples App Store, and make the transition seamless is a logistical nightmare. But that is not something the user will take note of unless something goes terribly wrong. The display also has touch sensors built directly into the glass, an expensive and consuming engineering feat that hasn’t been put into a consumer product ever, and all the improvement serves to do is allow the phone to be slightly thinner and the screen more accurate. The wireless antennae on the device support HSPA+, DC-HSDPA, LTE, and a high rate Wifi—another engineering triumph to complete while maintaining battery life that will be shrugged off. The camera lens uses a sapphire crystal to ensure clarity, but really, who says wow about that. The clunky 30 pin connector has been replaced with an 8-pin fully-digital and reversible connector, but most people will just groan about their accessories that no longer fit.

The iPhone 5 is without a doubt the best telephone on the market yet everyone seems to be completely underwhelmed by it. This has very little to do with the device itself and more to do with the expectations we hold for it. When the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the most sophisticated smartphones were Blackberrys and Treos. It was a touch screen god-send to a world of Motorola RAZR flip phones. It was truly something that had never been seen before. At that point, Apple made it clear they were eight to ten years ahead of any competitor. But that gap has leveled in the last five years. While Apple continues to make the best phone on the market, with the best application community behind it, we’re no longer seeing quantum leaps in their products’ abilities.

Maybe it’s because Jobs is gone. But the iPhone 3G was barely a step up from the original. And the iPhone 3GS was essentially the same device as the iPhone 3G. It was only the iPhone 4 that ushered in a new kind of design sense and internal components to follow. When people complain that the new iPhone isn’t better than the older versions, they really mean to say “It doesn’t look that different. How could it be any better?”

My iPhone is the product I interact the most regularly and intimately with. It exists with my person. The only thing that could challenge it for time in contact is my wallet and I spend a lot less time interacting with that. Before my current iPhone, I had my original iPhone for three years. I refused to let go of it in favor of newer models because the plastic build of the 3G and the 3GS felt cheap and reductive of the personal interaction implicit in the phone/phone-owner relationship. My original iPhone felt right in my hand. The anodized aluminum backing wore where my hands touched it until it was smooth. It is that type of connection between person and product that is seldom possible. In fact, I fear it’s something so rare that to someone who hasn’t owned an iPhone, iPad, or other Apple product the language I used to describe such a bond seems downright silly. The point: the iPhone 5 has—for lack of a more accurate metaphor—soul. And it’s soul is found in the painstaking engineering and design that went into the product. No company but Apple can manufacture something that carries so much life.

The iPhone 5 won’t make your draw drop. It does not present itself like alien technology as the original iPhone did five years ago. It is, however, the best phone on the market for the soul, precision, and standard of excellence it embodies.

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