The Enduring Genius of the iPhone


Duncan O. Glew, Banner Columnist

Over the past year or so, I have begun to embrace the technological side of my inner geek. I now regularly check tech-oriented websites like The Verge and Wired. I follow YouTube channels devoted to drop-testing $800 phones. I look up predictions regarding the rumored bells and whistles of tech giants’ future devices.

In all of this tech immersion, I have become increasingly aware of a strange disparity between Apple’s iPhone, the definitive modern smartphone brand, and the mobile offerings of its competitors. In the past few years, in particular, certain Android phones (Android is the operating system that powers most non-Apple smartphones) have surpassed the iPhone in several key areas.

Samsung’s Galaxy phones have sleeker designs and sharper displays. Google’s Pixel lineup continues to be praised for having the best smartphone camera on the market. The iPhone’s only advantage in terms of raw specifications is its processing speed. In some respects, Apple’s technology is actually several years behind.

So how does Apple get away with this? How does it get away with charging so much money for arguably outdated tech? I believe the answer to both these questions consists of three main elements: consistency, accessibility, and brand.

Let’s start with consistency. Ever since the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007, Apple has offered an unparalleled level of overall quality in its smartphone lineup. The company has made a few blunders—the Apple Maps fiasco and the so-called “Antennagate” scandal involving problems with the iPhone 4’s cellular connectivity are the most notorious—but all of its 18 iPhone models to date have been generally elegant reliable devices.

Only in the past two or three years have Apple’s rival smartphone vendors established luxury brands that are nearly as well-rounded as the iPhone. iPhone’s closest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy S line, was, frankly, pretty ugly until the release of the Galaxy S6 in 2015. The corrugated plastic that made up the backs of the phones looked cheap, and the rest of the design was clunky and asymmetrical. Sure, the Google Pixel has the best camera on the market, but it has only been around since last October.

If Samsung and Google had made smartphones with their current level of quality back in the early years of the iPhone, perhaps they would have a higher degree of dominance over the market.

That dependability is present in the iPhone’s software experience, too; something many iPhone users take for granted is the frequent updates to iOS made available to all iPhone models at the same time (provided their hardware is capable of running the update; it usually takes around 5 years for a model to become incompatible with a software update).

Except for Google’s Pixel lineup, most Android phones only get a few minor, infrequent updates in their entire lifetime. Since software is arguably more important than hardware when it comes to the smartphone experience, this shortens the ideal upgrade cycle for Android users.

Next up: accessibility.

What holds me back the most from switching to Android is the elegant simplicity and functionality of the Apple device ecosystem. Since Apple designs both the software and hardware of all its devices in-house, it has an unmatched level of control over its products and how they interact.

I can start writing an email, take a photo, or scribble a note on my iPhone, then pick up right where I left off on my Mac with the click of a button.

One would have to admit, Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, is neither the most powerful nor the most customizable option out there. You can do a whole lot more with Android. Its mobile payment system is more widely accepted throughout the world. Its digital assistant is lifetimes, maybe even eras, ahead of Siri.

But there aren’t many people who need such a high level of functionality and customizability in a smartphone. Most of us, myself included, just want a capable, smooth experience. Apple’s iOS delivers just that; the user interface is intuitive, downloading apps is simple and centralized, and it’s easy to find and perform the basic functions you use every day on your smartphone. As the late Steve Jobs loved to say, it just works.

Samsung, on the other hand, continues to be ridiculed for its viscerally clunky version of Android. Furthermore, its Galaxy phones come with a multitude of different apps that perform the same function. Users are left scratching their heads as to whether they should use Android Pay or Samsung Pay for mobile transactions, and whether Google Photos or Samsung’s native Gallery app is better for storing their pictures on the cloud. On the iPhone, there are Apple Pay and Photos. No confusion. No unnecessary choices.

Apple’s true genius, however, is in the brand. Due to its relevance to today’s digital world, the iPhone is the single most recognizable and dependable product in America, perhaps on the planet. It defined (and continues to define) the modern smartphone.

Whenever I happen to have a conversation about the smartphone industry, rarely are many people familiar with the Pixel and Galaxy lines, let alone phones made by LG or Motorola. Everyone, on the other hand, knows what the iPhone is.

This is partly due to the iPhone’s revolutionary nature at launch, but even more essential is the brilliant marketing. Especially in the product’s earlier years, there was no abstract naming scheme (see Samsung Galaxy and Google Pixel) or extraneous numbers and letters (looking at you, LG G6 and V30). Just “iPhone.” Apple’s branding is a show of elegant and, more importantly, memorable minimalism.

Perhaps the only device more definitive of its respective field is the iPad, another Apple product. No challenger has come close to establishing a tablet computer lineup nearly as recognizable. A rather humorous incident summarizes this perfectly; a few years back, a commentator for the Seattle Seahawks mistakenly referred to his Microsoft Surface tablet as an iPad.

Apple has an unparalleled knack for connecting with consumers by taking the complexity out of technology. It translates binary into English if you will. It may not always be the first to innovate, but it excels at wrapping innovative technologies in a relatable, accessible package.