No, This Is Not the Best iPhone Ever
The one incredibly irksome feature that will leave you cursing Apple.
Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
All over the Web, churls and haters are claiming that Apple didn’t unveil anything really innovative or surprising at the company’s iPhone launch event in San Francisco today. That’s just not true. For one thing, it’s the first iPhone to be called the iPhone 5. Indeed, this is the first iPhone whose name includes a number greater than 4. Tell me that’s not progress.
What’s more, this year Apple decided to go all out and aim for the “best iPhone we’ve ever made,” according to the parade of executives who took the stage Wednesday. Yes, the same executive said the same thing about last year’s iPhone 4S, 2010’s iPhone 4, and every other iPhone ever released. This time they said it quite passionately, though, so I think they really meant it.
The iPhone 5 is also the first iPhone to carry a 4-inch screen, taller than the 3.5-inch display on previous iPhones. What does a taller iPhone allow you to do? You’re not going to believe this: When you open an app designed for the iPhone 5’s bigger screen, it shows you more stuff than you would have seen on the old iPhone’s smaller screen. Now you can see five days in your calendar rather than three. When you open a news app, like CNN’s, you see more stories without having to scroll. When you look up restaurants in OpenTable’s app, you see more places to eat than you did before. It’s this kind of relentless innovation that reminds you that Apple didn’t become the world’s most valuable company by sitting on its hands.
Am I being too harsh? I probably am. This is what happens when—despite promising to “double down” on secrecy—Apple spills all its secrets too early. Because every single detail about the new iPhone had already been leaked, much of the announcement felt anticlimactic.
In truth, the iPhone 5 is a very impressive device. If you’re in the market for a new phone, you should certainly consider this one. (If you’re happy with your iPhone 4S, though, I see no compelling reason to upgrade.) Despite its bigger screen, the iPhone 5 is the thinnest and lightest iPhone ever made, and the difference is palpable. I played with the device for a few minutes after Apple’s press event, and I was floored by how svelte it was compared to older versions of the iPhone. I also love the back of the new phone, which is made out of aluminum rather than the glass found on the back of the 4S. The iPhone 5 feels more substantial than past versions, and it’s probably less fragile as well. This, maybe, is a phone that you might not need to stuff into a case in order to use—if that’s true, then thin and light might really mean thin and light.
I’ve got only one major problem with the new iPhone. As expected, it has a new “dock connector”—the little plug thingy for charging and connecting your phone to accessories. The new dock, which is also on the new iPods that Apple unveiled today, is much smaller than the ubiquitous connector that Apple has built into almost every iPod, iPhone, and iPad since 2003. The main reason Apple changed the dock is because the old one was too big—there’s just not enough room on Apple’s tiny new devices to fit the honking old connector. But Apple says the new dock has other advantages, too. You can plug it in forward and backward, so it will be easier to use than the old dock, which could only go in one way. Also, the new dock has better internal wiring, which could somehow make it better at transferring data in the future. (It’s unclear if it’s actually faster than the old one right now.)
I get why Apple needed to change the connector. But man is this going to be a pain. Like every other gadget user on the planet, I’ve accumulated a host of accessories to accommodate Apple’s old dock. Among them, my car (which features an old-style dock connector in the glovebox) and my clock radio. I’ve also got lots of charging cords sitting around my house, all designed to power up my phone and iPad wherever I go. Now all those things—tens of millions of iOS-compatible accessories—have been rendered obsolete. The only way to plug the new iPhone and iPods into gadgets bearing the old dock is to buy an ungainly adapter. Apple will sell you the adapter for $29, which is the definition of being unfriendly to your customers.
Apple has a long history of killing technologies that it deems obsolete. In the 1990s, it got rid of floppy drives from the iMac even though some people still stored a lot of their data on disks. The first MacBook Air didn’t include a DVD drive or an Ethernet port. But while those omissions were initially frustrating, they were defensible, because in those cases Apple was going along with clear trends in technology. Everyone knew that floppy drives and optical media would be obsolete; Apple was just moving faster than everyone else.
But I don’t think that defense applies with the dock. In this case, Apple is just moving from one closed, proprietary standard to another, causing endless hassles and minimal benefits for users. If Apple really believed that the old dock was too big for its newer devices, it should have replaced them, once and for all, with the tech industry’s standard way to connect stuff: USB. That connection system comes in various sizes, including one (micro-USB) that is found on almost every non-Apple phone in the world.
It’s true that USB isn’t reversible—you can only plug it in one way. Other than that, though, it would have worked just as well as Apple’s new dock, with the added benefit of being universal. If Apple had gone with USB, the world would have been a much better place: Everyone’s phone would be able to use the same charging plugs. There’d be a standardized way to get every device to plug into every other device—your iPad would be able to connect to your TV, no matter the make and model, or your iPhone could plug into your camera, letting you get all your pictures in an instant. What’s more, because USB is an open standard, accessory makers wouldn’t have had to get approval from Apple before coming up with new stuff.
That, of course, explains why Apple didn’t go with USB. By picking a proprietary dock, Apple will remain in charge of the bustling accessory market. Not only will it get to keep charging accessory makers a licensing fee to connect with its devices, but it will also be able to reject any accessories that it doesn’t like. And one day in the future, it will be able to decide, once again, to throw the whole industry under the bus by changing the dock again.
This incredibly annoying new dock connector isn’t going to hurt sales of the iPhone 5. But it’s still bogus, and it’s revelatory of Apple’s belief that the people who buy its gadgets are cash registers. So no, this isn’t the best iPhone ever. If it was, it wouldn’t have screwed over Apple’s most loyal customers.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.