After 10 years, the iPhone business is displaying signs of maturity. The days of significant sales growth are in the rearview mirror. The upgrade cycle is getting longer as it becomes that much harder to get people to upgrade their iPhones.
Apple was faced with a choice: Stick with the familiar and milk the iPhone business for all it’s worth, or throw familiarity out the window to pave a new iPhone journey for the next 10 years. Apple chose the latter, and iPhone X is the byproduct.
I’ve been using an iPhone X since Monday. Accordingly, this is not a comprehensive review. Instead, the focus is on my initial impressions and thoughts from using the device. My expectation is for additional iPhone X observations to materialize over the coming days and weeks.
iPhone X is without question an inflection point for the iPhone business. This new iPhone era won’t necessarily materialize in the form of stronger iPhone sales growth. Instead, the iPhone user experience is now on a different trajectory. In some ways, iPhone X places iPhone firmly in the direction of the original vision Jony Ive and Apple’s industrial designers had for iPhone when it was still an R&D project 12 years ago. Apple wants iPhone hardware to melt away, leaving just the user interacting with software.
Not Your Typical Update
The first thing that becomes apparent after using iPhone X is that this isn’t just any iPhone update. (Most people will probably call it iPhone “ex” instead of “ten” – I doubt Apple cares too much since people are going to buy this device in droves).
Historically, Apple has strived to have two or three marque features for each iPhone release. These features have to be substantial enough to frame a marketing campaign around. Some of these features, such as larger screens and fingerprint readers, have been hardware-related while other features, such as Portrait Mode and the dual camera system, have been a combination of software and hardware. In addition, new case colors have become a reliable way of enticing some iPhone users to upgrade. A few of the more noteworthy updates over the years include:
- iPhone 5: Larger 4-inch screen
- iPhone 5s: Touch ID / Gold finish
- iPhone 6 / 6 Plus: Larger 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch screens / Apple Pay
- iPhone 6s / 6s Plus: 3D Touch / Live Photos / Rose Gold finish
- iPhone 7 / 7 Plus: Dual camera system (Portrait Mode) / Jet Black finish
- iPhone 8 / 8 Plus: Glass back / Gold finish
When looking at the preceding list, no one feature jumps out as single-handily changing the way we use iPhone. Instead, each feature played a supporting role in a much bigger production. Apple’s broader goal has been to improve the iPhone experience ever so slightly with each new iPhone. Management has seen more success in reaching that goal in some years than in other years.
With iPhone X, two design changes stand out: the removal of the front-facing home button and Face ID replacing Touch ID. The changes amount to nothing short of an entirely new iPhone experience. The best way to describe the feeling found when using iPhone X is that it’s the closest thing to using an iPhone from an alternative universe. There is this fresh, or reinvigorating, feeling to it – as if the home button was holding the iPhone experience back, representing a barrier to interacting with software. No other iPhone update has been able to elicit such a strong feeling. It is also easy to see where Apple wants to take iPhone over the next ten years (more on this shortly).
Much to my surprise, there really isn’t much of a learning curve with iPhone X. While it will take a few minutes to get used to not having a home button, the memory reflex adjusts incredibly quickly. I was expecting to keep pressing the bottom of the screen as if there was still a dedicated home button, but it just never occurred.
The remarkable thing about this is that considering how engrained the home button has been in our lives, to just move on after a few minutes says something about the intuitive user interface found with iPhone X. The home button wasn’t just a way to unlock our iPhone the dozens of times throughout the day or to get back to the home screen. Instead, the home button represented familiarity and safety. In case of trouble, a quick tap would drop us back into the comfort found with the home screen. In case of an extra sticky situation, a quick double tap would bring up the multitasking window as a form of escape.
With iPhone X, the swiping gesture has replaced home button pressing, and it feels more natural than a home button ever felt. A swipe up from the bottom of the screen in both a horizontal and vertical position brings you back to the home screen. Control panel is a swipe from the upper right corner.
Why No Home Button?
There is a rather straightforward question to ask about iPhone X: Why did Apple remove the iPhone home button in the first place? It’s all about coming up with a different way to interact with technology – removing extra bezel to just leave you and the screen. A byproduct of this is that Apple is able to fit more screen in the same form factor. iPhone X has a little bit less screen real estate (in terms of area) than iPhone Plus. The 5.8-inch screen has a more vertical element than its iPhone Plus sibling.
While the iPhone Plus has been gaining sales momentum in recent years, culminating with iPhone 8 Plus outselling its smaller iPhone 8 sibling, the form factor is a bit large for a certain portion of the iPhone user base. Apple went with the iPhone X’s particular form factor because it felt the best in hand. Of course, Apple will likely sell different iPhone X sizes over time, but the company had specific reasons for going with the current iPhone X form factor.
Touch ID is a thing of the past. If it wasn’t for needing to use Touch ID on my iPad Pro, I doubt I will give the fingerprint recognition technology much thought going forward.
The Apple rumor cottage industry had a wild 2017 when it came to Touch ID and iPhone X. Many Apple rumor finders and reporters were extremely confident that Apple actually wanted to put Touch ID under the screen and due to technological roadblocks had to settle for Face ID. While it would not be surprising for Apple to investigate trying to put fingerprint recognition under a screen (why wouldn’t they kick the tires?), Apple is no way settling with Face ID. In addition, the claim that Face ID is in some way a stop gap is just wrong. Instead, Face ID represents the next reiteration of Apple’s quest to push biometric authentication forward.
Face ID set-up is ridiculously smooth, easy, and quick. We can probably throw the word magical into the mix as well – it would qualify. While Touch ID signup has improved over the years, Face ID blows it out of the window in terms of simplicity and intuitiveness.
There are a few notable drawbacks to Face ID – which do seem like low-hanging fruit for Apple to address down the road. (These drawbacks were discussed in my accompanying iPhone X initial impressions video.)
- You need to look at the iPhone X TrueDepth camera system basically directly on for Face ID to work. The days of laying your iPhone on the desk and just reaching over and pressing the home button are over (for now). Instead, you will either need to shift so that your face is directly over the TrueDepth camera system, or you have to lift up the iPhone from the flat surface. You can just tap the screen to see notifications.
- Face ID requires access to your eyes, nose, and mouth. For some people, this will limit Face ID availability. It is important to point out that Touch ID has its fair share of issues as well including wet fingers.
- In my initial tests, Face ID on iPhone X was slower than Touch ID on an iPhone 8 Plus when used to get to the home screen.
All in all, Face ID is impressive. It’s not a perfect replacement for Touch ID but it’s more than adequate. iPhone X will place Face ID as the first genuine technology that will make facial recognition go mainstream in a smartphone.
A few hours with the screen is all you need to begin understanding why Apple chose to remove as much bezel as possible. The way Apple wraps the iPhone X screen around the TrueDepth camera system (a.k.a the notch) has been a polarizing topic in the run up to this week’s launch. Some people think the notch is bad design. This camp argues Apple shouldn’t have included a visual gap in the screen. Renderings showing various iPhone X apps in portrait mode, which clearly look odd at first, have given this camp a decent number of supporters.
However, in what likely isn’t a coincidence, the “notch is bad design” camp has been quiet when it comes to offering or suggesting better alternatives. Including extra bezel to the left and right of the TrueDepth camera system, like every other smartphone manufacturer currently does with their front-facing camera, isn’t a better solution. One wouldn’t be able to use that space to display information such the date, time, battery indicator, carrier signal, etc. In addition, the whole point of iPhone X is to get rid of as much bezel as possible.
Much like the home button, the “notch” will be quickly forgotten. It just melts away after a few hours of use. Let’s not beat around the bush – an iPhone X without any notch would obviously be the closest representation to Apple’s vision of hardware melting away to just leave the user interacting with software. However, the technology for such a feat just isn’t available today (although Apple R&D suggests the company is working at it). But Apple sure comes close to that perfection, even when taking into account the notch.
I don’t think it’s fair to say that the way Apple wraps the screen around the TrueDepth camera system was some kind of major compromise. Instead of Apple redesigning iPhone to remove the notch next year or the following year, there is a much higher likelihood of Samsung and other smartphone manufacturers embracing some version of the notch as the extra bezel found on Galaxy S8 or Pixel 2 XL really does stand out in a negative way when positioned next to iPhone X.
The debate over the notch is not about whether Apple should have included a notch or not with iPhone X. Instead, the debate comes down to screen real estate. Along those lines, the notch comes out ahead. Regardless of the pros and cons found with the notch, Apple is fully embracing it. In fact, the notch replaces the home button as a defining characteristic of the device – a way for the phone to stand out from competitors. The notch ends up being iPhone X branding.
Thoughts on Sales
Beginning Friday, Apple will be selling three new iPhones simultaneously for the first time (iPhone X, iPhone 8, and iPhone 8 Plus). After using both an iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, I don’t think it’s completely right to label each as Apple’s flagship iPhone. Instead, iPhone X has the exclusive rights to that title.
While iPhone X shares some similarities with iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, the differences are just too much to place the three phones on the same plane. However, it would be a mistake to cast iPhone 8 and 8 Plus as the forgotten iPhones.
Conventional wisdom positions iPhone X as targeting iPhone users focused on the latest and greatest technology. Meanwhile, everyone else is thought to be interested in the lower-cost iPhone 6s, 7, or 8. After using iPhone X and taking into consideration how most consumers buy iPhones, I’m not sure such a generalization is correct.
The question of how an iPhone user will choose between an iPhone X and a different kind of iPhone (most existing iPhone users will stick with iPhone for their next smartphone) won’t come down to one’s desire for the latest and greatest technology. Instead, it will likely come down to one’s comfort level with change and the desire for familiarity.
For a portion of the 800M iPhone users in the wild, iPhone X will represent change that isn’t essential at this time. This isn’t to say anything about iPhone X not appealing to the mass market or the device not being intuitive enough. Instead, the iPhone user base is increasingly heterogeneous when it comes to views and thoughts regarding technology and iPhone. For many people, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are worthy upgrades to their existing iPhones. A very strong case can be made that iPhone 8 and 8 Plus will sell just fine next to iPhone X. In subsequent years, these users will eventually be in a better position to embrace the design changes found with iPhone X as Apple extends that design language to different screen sizes.
Approximately 80% of iPhone sales in the U.S. occur through mobile carriers. This means that for many iPhone users, the purchase decision between iPhone 8 and iPhone X may come down to how each iPhone looks next to each other in a Verizon or AT&T store. The iPhone X would probably win if it were a beauty contest – the screen just can’t be beat. However, the home button may give iPhone 8 and 8 Plus some points with a portion of consumers. At the end of the day, sales may end up a draw, which would be a big win for iPhone X considering its higher price.
Speaking of iPhone X pricing - which will likely go down as the most talked about Apple topic of the year – concerns of iPhone X pricing being too high are misplaced. This phone is going to sell well in U.S. and China. In fact, iPhone X will sell well in all of Apple’s established markets. Emerging markets will likely be a different story, which explains Apple’s consumer segmentation strategy for iPhone pricing. The iPhone SE, 6, and 6s are clearly targeting emerging markets where pricing is a much bigger sticking point.
In many ways, iPhone X is the kind of product you would expect from Apple. Instead of settling with the existing iPhone paradigm and watching iPhone sales and profit gradually decline over time, Apple is determined to move on to the next thing. iPhone X is that the next thing. We are seeing the foundation for the next ten years of iPhone. All iPhones will eventually look and feel like iPhone X.
There are a few rough items around the edges. Face ID has some drawbacks when compared to Touch ID, although these are pretty much offset by its positives. In addition, some iPhone Plus users may be left a bit unsatisfied with iPhone X screen real estate (I would be interested in trying an iPhone X in the size of an iPhone Plus).
Apple is laying the foundation for a new user interface paradigm in which we rely much less on multi-touch to control our iPhones. Instead, we will rely on glances and looks. With wearables increasingly positioned as Apple’s product priority, an iPhone that serves as an augmented reality navigator controlled by glances is the future. The technology underpinning such a product can then one day be applied to other wearables controlled by glances and looks: Apple glasses.
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