Apple's new iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s: Is better good enough?

The latest iPhone models are definitely an improvement, but for Apple that isn't always enough.

On Tuesday, Apple announced its widely anticipated new smartphones, the “budget” iPhone 5c and the high-end iPhone 5s. Both phones make significant advances from previous Apple models, and top their Android competitors in some important ways. They’re impressive efforts and, like many people, I’d be happy to upgrade from my iPhone 5 to a 5s.

But slick and innovative as they are, and I’ll get to those innovations in a moment, there’s nothing here that wasn’t clearly predicted by the incredibly zealous Apple rumor mill. More to the point, it’s not clear that there’s anything here that will change the smartphone dynamic from continuing to tilt away Apple and toward Google and Samsung’s much-larger, much more diverse Android ecosystem.

What’s New? What’s Important?

Among other things, the big news on the flagship iPhone 5s includes

  • Proprietary 64-bit A7 processor
  • M7 motion coprocessor
  • Touch ID fingerprint security scanner

The faster chips will make a bigger difference than many users might realize (Apple claims a 2x improvement over the A6, and for me, faster speed was the biggest improvement from the iPhone 4 to iPhone 5), but won’t likely drive many buying decisions. In the long run, the chips will enable new applications to do amazing new things, but apart from some whizzy games, we don’t really know what those will be yet.

[FIRST LOOK: Apple iPhone 5S & 5C]

In the meantime, do most consumers look at chip specs when choosing a smartphone? And what does 64-bit mean in the real world, anyway?

More important for enterprise users, perhaps, is the iPhone 5s fingerprint security solution. If it works quickly and reliably (laptop fingerprint sensors were briefly popular a few years, but were quickly abandoned when they proved glitchy), it could make smartphones less of a security risk. No Android phones currently feature these devices, but the Wall Street Journal says at least one is in development for release later this year, though not necessarily in the U.S.

Ultimately, the iPhone 5s doesn’t really change anything. The top-of-the-line iPhone remains a premium product with some very intriguing features that still can’t match the variety and speed of innovation in the Android world. Apple will sell a ton of these babies, but it’s unlikely to stem the inexorable slide of its market share.

A Plastic Fantastic Apple?

That’s where the new iPhone 5c comes in. Ironically, the most important feature of the new iPhone 5c is its price – approximately $100 less than a 5s with the same amount of memory. It’s basically an iPhone 5 packed into a seamless, hard-coated polycarbonate case wrapped around a metal frame.

The colorful phone is designed to counter Android’s huge advantage in the low end of the smartphone market around the world (especially in China, where the new phone will get newly expanded distribution), but it remains to be seen whether it will be cheap enough to do so effectively, and if buyers in the developing world will decide that a plastic iPhone is worth the Apple premium.

Those are the big questions as we wait for Apple to deliver on the larger innovations it’s rumored to be developing, from the iWatch to big-screen iPhones, as well as the stuff we don’t know about yet. Make no mistake - Tuesday’s announcements were placeholders, not game changers. We’ll have to wait until 2014 to see if Apple has a chance to reclaim its unquestioned dominance of the mobile marketplace.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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