Skipping the 5S, in Praise of Mobile Maturity

I will not be getting an iPhone 5S, and unlike the time I thought there was no way I was going to upgrade from the 4S to the 5, I mean it this time. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with the 5S, but as I expected might be the case, the technology behind mobile computing has begun to mature to the point that an upgrade to next year’s device is not life-changing or really necessary to stay relevant.

Remember previous iPhone iterations? The iPhone 3G had, well, 3G, and that was huge. The 3GS was way faster, and could record video, and those were huge (especially since I’d just had my first kid). The 4 had that freaking Retina display, absolutely mind-blowing at the time, and that was huge. The 4S was way faster than that (like, in a revelatory way), had a way better camera, and had Siri, and that shit was Huge Hugerson.

Now, the 5 had LTE and a little extra screen real estate. Honestly, I could have done without it. I wrote about this when I first got the 5, and it remains true; I miss being able to reach all parts of the screen with my thumb. My tiny hands simply can’t do it, and with a case on, well, forget it, it’s a two-handed device at that point. So the extra speed, the extra space, the better camera, the faster network connection, they’re all great, but I probably could have happily remained with the 4S all the way to now and not missed much at all.

So now there’s the 5S (the 5C simply being a 5 with a colorful case), and while its upgrades are great, they’re not compelling enough to make me subjugate myself to AT&T for another two years.

Specifically:

  • The new processor is supposed to make the thing twice as fast, which is awesome, but I’m having zero problems with the speed of the 5.
  • The additional “M7” processor seems designed mainly for movement tracking and the like, and as fitness is something I’m not dying to quantify, this is not compelling.
  • The thumbprint scanner looks like it’s a genuinely useful took, particularly for iTunes/App Store purchases, but, again, not worth it.
  • I’d sure love to have a camera that took better low light pictures, or with a crazy burst mode, but again, I don’t want it $850-bad.

And the addition of iOS 7 to the iPhone 5 makes it feel like a new device anyway. So I’m happy to stick, for real this time. And none of this is a reflection of how good the new phone is. It looks fabulous, and exactly the kinds of improvements the line needs. But now that the previous-generation hardware is still so good, much like with desktop computers, there is little reason to continue jogging on what Jeff Bezos called the “upgrade treadmill.” And that’s good! Mobile computers like smartphones and tablets are now ready for primetime, and don’t immediately become obsolete. Hooray!

But given that I’m not jumping to the next iPhone immediately like I usually do (or usually try to do eventually), it’s interesting to think about what else might compel one to jump off the Apple ship.

Dan Frommer has an interesting post up about the lure of Android that rings true. (He’s a devotee of the iPad mini, which I simply can’t be in its current incarnation, but that’s neither here nor there, or not entirely.) He, too, is skipping this iPhone generation for many of the same reasons, and muses about a potential dalliance on Google Island:

When I hear a Samsung Galaxy Note owner rave about having a bigger screen with them all the time, I start to wonder. And to a certain degree, I just craved something really new. A few afternoons, I was ready to pop into the Verizon store and check out an HTC One or Moto X.

But then he tries a Nexus 7 he has lying around, it doesn’t even work, and he remembers all he doesn’t like about the Google ecosystem and whatnot. I’m sympathetic, though I don’t think he gives Google/Android quite enough credit.

While Apple seems to recognize and accept that mobile hardware is maturing, the manufacturers of Android devices run in one of two directions: They either resist taking advantage of that maturity and continue to crank out cheap junk, or they reveal a hint of desperation to stand out, or at least insecurity, and pack their phones with whiz-bang features that are useful to no one.

But Google itself resists this (mostly, anyway — I’m still waiting for Google Now to tell me more than the weather and how far it is to Starbucks). I often come back to the fact that I like how Apple “makes the decisions for me,” where the trade-off between customization and integrity of user experience is a net win. From what I’ve seen, the current “openness” of the Android hardware world is a net-loss, but not necessarily so with Google-branded, “pure” Android devices.

Now, I did decide that with the first-generation Nexus 7 that it was, if not a net-loss, a loss in points to iOS and iPad, and I came back to the Apple fold. But this is getting to be a tougher race to call. Like Frommer, I would resist a carrier-based HTC One, but I’m sorely tempted by a vanilla-Android version. The new Nexus 7 has a higher screen resolution than an top-of-the-line iPad, and the overall user experience of pure Android is improving all the time.

That said, I’m still happier to leave my mobile technology fate in Apple’s hands. But I’m very, very interested in who might woo me with a better offer. You know, I hear the folks who do Cyanogen Mod are going to build their own stand-alone consumer version of their Android ROM. Imagine a company that was staffed with folks who had exquisite taste for user experience did the same thing, build an Android that would delight those who follow the Path of the Steve (peace be upon him) and his prophet Jony Ive. Pack that onto a next-generation HTC One or Nexus device, and you may have your worthy suitor at last.

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