Three comments this week by Apple CEO Tim Cook should have led to a reset of popular iOSphere rumors about the upcoming iPhone 6, iPad 5, and iPad mini 2, but probably didn’t.
Cook made the comments during Apple’s Q2 earnings call with Wall Street analysts on Tuesday. He was responding to analysts’ questions, which themselves reflected several persistent strains of Apple rumors.
Quotes are from Macworld’s edited transcript of Cook’s remarks.
1. Rumoristas: Apple will be announcing new iPhones and/or iPads in April, May, June, July, or August.
Cook: “Our teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software, and services that we can’t wait to introduce this fall and throughout 2014. We continue to be very confident in our future product plans.”
Translation: “We’ll introduce new hardware, software, and services this fall and throughout 2014.”
Comment: This is a pretty definite, and according to Apple watcher John Gruber, pretty unusual, signal of Apple’s announcement schedule. If one believes that the company will announce new iPad and iPhone models in 2013, then it seems that won’t begin to happen until sometime this fall -- about 12 months after the announcement of the current iPhone, iPad, and iPad mini. “Clearly, they’re seeking to adjust expectations regarding WWDC [the just announced Worldwide Developer Conference] in June,” Gruber writes.
That leaves open the question of whether Apple will use WWDC, as it has in recent years, as a showcase for the next version of its mobile firmware, iOS 7. Gruber and others said recently that they’ve been told that iOS 7 is “behind schedule,” and that Apple has reallocated software engineering resources to put it back on schedule. The other uncertainty is how last fall’s management shakeup -- which ousted iOS chief Scott Forstall, and shifted the iOS core to OS X software chief Craig Federighi, and the iOS user interface/user experience design work to Jony Ive – may have affected the schedule.
2. Rumoristas: Apple is flailing and failing in innovation; they’re copying rivals too much or not copying them enough; they’re losing market share; they should have cheaper phones and bigger-screened phones because the competition offer these.
Cook: “We will continue to focus on the long term, and we remain very optimistic about our future. We’re participating in large and growing markets. We see great opportunities in front of us, particularly given the long-term prospects of the smartphone and tablet markets, the strength of our incredible ecosystem which we plan to continue to augment with services, our plans for expanded distribution, and the potential of exciting new product categories.”
Translation: “We’re still the Apple that created the iPhone and the iPad. We have a long-term focus on great opportunities in a big, growing market and we’re creating new classes of products to address them.”
Comment: In all three of its main mobile products, iPhone, iPad and iPad mini, the individual Apple models are by far the biggest selling in their product categories. Apple doesn’t, at present, sell a variety of phones: it sells the iPhone. As successful as has been Samsung’s Galaxy S III smartphone, the iPhone still outsells it.
"We've already sold 50 million units of the Galaxy S III since its launch last year [on May 3, 2012],” according to J.K. Shin, Samsung's mobile chief, in a March 14, 2013 Wall Street Journal interview. But from April 2012 through March 2013, Apple sold 138.16 million iPhones. In just the October to December 2012 period, after iPhone 5 went on sale, it sold 47.79 million.
As Apple executives acknowledged during the earnings call, the company’s growth rate has slowed, especially compared to the spectacular results of 2012. But the company’s existing products remain popular.
While Apple continues to improve and manage those products, Cook explicitly describes “new product categories” that are in development, and doubtless have been for several years at least. These eventually will take their place alongside the existing product categories of phones, tablets and laptops.
3. Rumoristas: Apple needs to release an iPhone with a 5-inch screen, because big-screen phones from rivals, especially Samsung have been so successful.
Cook: “My view continues to be that iPhone 5 has the absolute best display in the industry. We always strive to create the very best display for our customers. Some customers value large screen size, others value also other factors, such as resolution, color quality, white balance, brightness, reflectivity, screen longevity, power consumption, portability, compatibility apps, many things.
“Our competitors have made some significant trade-offs in many of these areas in order to ship a larger display. We would not ship a larger-display iPhone while these tradeoffs exist.”
Translation: “No, we don’t. Yet.”
Comment: Cook starts by emphasizing Apple’s criteria for the iPhone display – “the absolute best display in the industry.” What follows is almost a definition of what Apple means by “absolute best” in this context. Interestingly, the definition doesn’t include “one-handed use” or more accurately “one-thumbed use.” He acknowledges that some customers “value large screen size.” They may value that enough to make it their primary buying criteria. In which case, Apple loses that sale.
His list of “other factors” shows how complex is the meaning of “best display” – a bundle of different but related technologies that have to be coordinated and optimized. Cook seems to be saying that Apple’s definition of “best” can best be applied to a 4-inch smartphone screen...so far.
He claims, with some justification, that rivals have made less-than-optimal tradeoffs in order to create larger-screened smartphones.
Probably most smartphone buyers cannot define in technical terms qualities such as “color quality” or “white balance” or “reflectivity.” The Verge’s Dieter Bohn takes note of this point, but draws the wrong conclusion. “Although Cook may be right that many Android smartphones ship with disappointing screens, it's not as if the relatively worse color fidelity and white balance on the Samsung Galaxy S3 have stemmed its sales,” Bohn writes.
In fact, it’s impossible to know whether they have or not, partly because buying behavior studies tend to focus on the reasons for buying, not the reasons for not buying; and partly because the vast majority of smartphone buyers lack the time and tools, and probably the interest, to do in-depth technical comparisons of different smartphone displays.
“Cook's statements don't entirely preclude a larger iPhone in the future, but the hints do make it appear slightly less likely — that is, unless Apple would rather tout its ability to master those persnickety ‘tradeoffs,’” Bohn concludes. While the first part of Bohn’s conclusion is surely correct, it’s not entirely clear what the last part of his statement means. He seems to suggest that these display qualities, and Apple’s priorities in smartphone display, are “persnickety” especially in comparison to the display size.
Persnickety can have two, revealingly different definitions. Bohn appears to mean the first one: “placing too much emphasis on trivial or minor details; fussy.” But Cook, and Apple as a whole, seems to mean the second: “requiring a particularly precise or careful approach.”
It is true that some of the differences between Apple and its rivals can only be discerned by sophisticated testing, such as that done by AnandTech’s Chris Heinonen in his September 2012 in-depth analysis of the iPhone 5 screen’s performance, mainly in comparison to previous iPhone models.
Yet there is a cumulative effect, and impact, of this kind of attention to persnickety tradeoffs. Heinonen’s conclusion is worth quoting at length:“Wrapping up, the iPhone 5 display is a quantum leap better than the display on the iPhone 4. Contrast levels and light output have both been increased, and color performance is astonishing. The full sRGB gamut [that is, the complete subset of colors, within the sRGB color space standard, that can be accurately represented] is present here, and color errors are remarkably low even for a high end desktop display. While many were hoping for a move to OLED or some other screen innovation, this [iPhone 5 display] really is a huge step up that is very easy to quantify. To put this in perspective, in the past few years I've reviewed probably 30-40 different displays, from PC monitors to TVs to projectors. Not a single one, out of the box, can put up the GretagMacbeth dE numbers [a reference to a widely used color calibration target] that the iPhone can, and perhaps one projector (which listed for $20,000) can approach the grayscale and color accuracy out of the box….The new panel in the iPhone 5 is simply remarkable in quality and if it were a PC monitor, I'd give it a Gold Award on the basis of its performance.”
AnandTech’s Brian Klug also analyzed the iPhone 5 display as part of the Website’s in-depth review of the new phone, confirming that in most quality measures, the iPhone 5 screen leads or is near the top compared to rivals. But in addition to the technical details, he also included photos comparing what the user sees when he looks at the iPhone 4S and 5 displays. In one photo, the 4S at right shows small white horizontal lines, typically visible in outdoor or direct light, but missing from the 5 screen at left. In the second photo, the 4S at right shows significantly more “blue haze” than the 5 screen to the left.
Apple seems to believe that this kind of attention to multiple criteria to improve screen quality is, in fact, “experienced” and appreciated by end users, even if they have no idea of the arcana of image engineering. This kind of approach to the screen experience goes well beyond the outward new “tech specs” such as the 16:9 aspect ratio, the 1136 x 640 resolution, and the use of an in-cell instead of on-cell digitizer…and beyond simply making the screen larger.