Top Gear: usually entertaining, often controversial. Particularly when talking about other nationalities.
Many years back, Jeremy Clarkson was reviewing some selection of cars or other. I’m guessing one of them was Japanese and one of them was British. To explain the difference he used British and Japanese hi-fis. The British one, from Arcam if I remember rightly, had a fairly simple, clean exterior interrupted by very few knobs and switches. The Japanese one bristled with technology. Jeremy’s assessment was that both sounded equally good, as long as you adjusted all the knobs and switches on the Japanese one correctly.
Jeremy determined the Japanese one was better because men like knobs. Or something like that. More technology, more features, switches, numbers and dials, are what people want. There’s some truth in this. There’s joy to be had in pushing and prodding, tweaking and tuning.
There’s a parallel truth about the technology media. It’s much easier to write about new features and functions when they have quantifiable specifications that are bigger or smaller than their competitors. People can get their heads around millimetres and megapixels, megahertz and milliamps. Competition makes news but competition needs benchmarks, winners and losers.
When it’s all about the spec sheet, geeks like me can compare and contrast. Obsessively research which gadget we want based on its on-paper capabilities, like some high-stakes game of Top Trumps. We enjoy this.
The problem comes in assessing those devices that don’t play the game.
Apple, for example. While the company may boast about new technical features like its 64-bit architecture and motion co-processor, for the most part what sells an Apple device has little to do with outright specification. It is down to experience. Apple’s new iPhones are serious competitors not because their Top Trumps datasheet says so but because the experience of using them is great.
Apple used to have a major advantage over competitors in user experience. Early Android phones felt like the user interface had been designed by a gaming-addled seven-year-old. Too flashy and whizzbang for everyday use. Blackberry was functional but ugly and dated. Symbian even more so. Don’t get me started on early Windows phones.
By contrast Apple was sleek and functional. Instantly and intuitively easy to use. I hated the first iPhone but only because the lack of 3G was so irritating: it made you want to be online all the time and back then, Wi-Fi hotspots in the UK sucked even harder than they do today.
Over time Apple’s advantage has been chipped away. The rough edges of Android have been smoothed off. UI designs have improved dramatically, particularly those from Sony and HTC. The Windows Phone OS is genuinely innovative, and for all its sales struggles, good. If people asked me until yesterday I’d say Apple remained in the lead, but only just. iOS was starting to look seriously dated. Every designer I know was moaning about the skeuomorphic elements that year-on-year meant less and less to a digitally-native audience.
In hardware too, Apple appeared to be left behind. Screen sizes are growing, cases are shrinking, everyone seems to have some cool display technology or other. And new standards and acronyms like 4K and UHD are all over competitors’ devices.
The iPhone 5S doesn’t do 4K. It doesn’t have a giant screen. It isn’t the thinnest device on the market. And yet yesterday it feels like Apple re-established its lead.
iOS7 feels fresh yet familiar. The dated elements have been swept away and replaced with interesting, original design that makes maximum use of the iPhone’s graphical capabilities. Alongside, new tweaks to the user interface have made it slicker in use: easier access to search, better multi-tasking, improvements to Safari, single-swipe access to key features. Some of these things competitors had, but here the implementation is just that bit cleaner.
On the 5S important functions like the camera have been improved, taking advantage of its monstrous processing power to allow slow-motion video, or burst shooting. The 64-bit architecture (its one, big, Top Trumps boast) should support even more ambitious app development. And the much-vaunted fingerprint scanner should genuinely smooth access while improving security (I don’t buy that the NSA would even want access to your fingerprints, let alone that they could get it).
Like the British stereo on Top Gear, there are few buttons and switches, sliders and dials. The iPhone 5S does not flaunt its technology. You just use it and it does what you want, out of the box. Unlike the British hi-fi, I think the iPhone is probably better than its nearest competitors because of this simplicity.
Let me qualify that because ‘better’ is pretty subjective. There are lots of great phones out there, and many of them will do things the iPhone doesn’t or do it better. I’m really liking the HTC One Mini that I’m testing at the moment, and am genuinely impressed with the latest devices from Sony — long my favourite maker of Android phones. I think Nokia’s newest devices are seriously compelling and that the Windows Phone operating system is a great rethinking of what we want from a mobile OS.
But if I want a phone that I can just use, easily and quickly, every time, I keep coming back to the iPhone. Even if you account for familiarity, the iPhone still wins on everyday usability. Until this week it was only just; iOS7 offers a significant improvement over what’s in my pocket.
There’s little doubting that the new iPhones will sell well. They don’t need me boosting them and that’s not my intention. It’s the philosophy behind them that I want to salute. As in my last post about ‘Colours and Chamfers’ (two words used by Jony Ive in Tuesday’s launch), these are devices designed around the customer. Built to do what customers want them to do with the minimum of fuss.
If you believe Jeremy Clarkson, that’s very British engineering. And that’s why I say Apple is a very British engineering company.