The iPhone Xs: An innovation dilemma

In a financial conference call during the last year, Apple CEO Tim Cook described the iPhone X as setting up the next ten years of smartphones. It’s easy to see now what Cook meant by that: this week, the company updated all of its new iPhones to follow the design example set by the iPhone X.

But even as it unveiled the iPhone Xs Max and the iPhone XR, the company ran into a struggle when it came to the iPhone X’s successor, the iPhone Xs. How do you take what was formerly your most advanced iPhone and distinguish it from the rest of your now equally advanced line-up?


Apple’s Phil Schiller talks about the A12 Bionic processor in the iPhone Xs.

That’s one reason why during Apple’s event, about halfway through Apple’s description of the iPhone Xs, I started to get a bit antsy and, much as I hate to admit it, a little bored. The more the company leaned on the impressive specs in the iPhone Xs’s A12 Bionic chip, the more I started to suspect that it was because the bulk of the improvements in this new phone were in the kind of speed and capacity increases that aren’t necessarily obvious to most users.

There’s nothing new there. Apple’s “s” series years tend to focus largely on internal improvements, though they’re often not without some kind of hardware improvement, often bolstered by new software features. The company has to date always managed to weave a compelling story about those features, though, whether it be the new security enabled by Touch ID on the iPhone 5s or the extra dimension of interaction that 3D Touch enabled on the iPhone 6s. Not so with the iPhone Xs: I’d be hard pressed to come away with a concrete example of why the Xs outpaces the X or what, for that matter, the headline feature of the Xs even is.

Apple was one of the first companies to shy away from a reliance on speeds and feeds, the bandying of ever-higher figures and specs that were the hallmark of the heady days of the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But at the event we were regaled with stats on floating point operations, processor cores, and even the amount of storage the phone could address. All impressive feats, to be sure, but perhaps a little more down in the weeds than Apple traditionally gets.

The fundamental problem with launching a device so far ahead of its time, as Apple did last year with the iPhone X, is that it makes it that much harder to top it the next time around. It’s kind of like Olympic athletes struggling to outpace their rivals—or even themselves—by shaving another fraction of a second off their time.


Apple’s Phil Schiller explains the dual SIM support in the iPhone Xs.

It’s been clear for some time that the pace of smartphone advancement has been slowing. That’s in large part because the first decade of development on the devices was about filling in the gaps, bringing the utility of a smartphone to the point where it matched that of the PCs we’d all relied on. But eleven years after the iPhone’s debut, most of those gaps in functionality have been filled; there are plenty of people who use the smartphone as their main or only device, and there are lots of things we do every day that are better or easier on the phone than they ever were on our laptops and desktops.

The smartphone has become a fact of life over the last decade and, like all new innovations, shifted from truly amazing to merely quotidian. Being able to make an international telephone call was once regarded as miraculous; now we send millions of messages around the world every second of every day. The threshold for being wowed has gone up—and that’s okay. It’s the natural progression.

What’s left is the undiscovered country of new features and capabilities that were never possible before on any device. But that’s a far more time-consuming and resource intensive endeavor, the kind of thing that you don’t necessarily see every year or, indeed, even every few years.

None of this is to suggest that the iPhone Xs is not a fine phone, or that Apple won’t sell plenty of them—including to me. But it’s a clear indication of why Apple put the focus this year on bringing the rest of its iPhone line-up up to par with the iPhone X: the way forward with those models was already paved.


Apple’s Jeff Willams talks about the new ECG feature in the Apple Watch Series 4.

And it’s not as though excitement and advancement is totally absent from the technology industry. Despite a somewhat rocky beginning, the Apple Watch has shown that there are whole new dimensions of technology to be explored. The addition of an electrocardiogram in the Series 4 is the perfect example of a feature that few people would have predicted would be available in a piece of technology available on your wrist.

Because the best part of technology and human innovation is still that once whatever you’re excited about has become old hat, there’s always something new and unexpected right around the corner.