Technology & Science·Analysis

iPhone 7 about 'courage,' but is it truly innovative?

Now that Apple has taken the wraps off the iPhone 7, the question on everyone’s minds is: Is it worth buying, or even worthy of all the attention it’s getting?

Latest devices ditch audio jack, will come with adapter for older headphones

The new phone will come with a free adapter for those who prefer analog headphones over the new wireless ones. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

Now that Apple has taken the wraps off the iPhone 7, the question on everyone's minds is: Is it worth buying? Or, by extension, is it an innovative product worthy of all the attention it's getting?

The answer to both questions is, as always, in the eye of the beholder. There is plenty to like about the new iPhone — the device whose progenitor truly kicked off the mobile revolution nine years ago — as well as lots to dislike. More on the downsides in a moment.

On the plus side, besides all the incremental improvements — a faster processor, better battery life and more storage — are its optical capabilities. The iPhone 7 features a 12-megapixel camera with image stabilization, a larger aperture and a six-element lens, all of which will combine to produce better photos than possible on previous models.

The iPhone 7 Plus features wide-angle and telephoto cameras in in the back. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Where things get more interesting is with the larger iPhone 7 Plus model, which houses not one but two cameras. The Plus has the same wide-angle lens as its smaller cousin, but also a second miniature telephoto lens that allows for two times optical zoom.

Optical zoom is important because it allows the lens to truly get nearer to the subject, as opposed to digital zoom, which is a software trick used by all phone cameras to simulate real close-ups. Combining the two methods, the iPhone 7 Plus will be capable of zooming in to a factor of 10. For consumers who like to snap photos, that's a definite selling point.

What Apple didn't talk much about is how the two cameras might be used in conjunction with each other. With the ability to capture two images simultaneously, the iPhone 7 Plus is effectively a three-dimensional camera.

This is a "non-trivial" development, as Benedict Evans, a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, put it on Twitter. Apple may be laying the groundwork for a foray into mobile virtual reality, which it could potentially delve into as soon as next year to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the iPhone.

Phil Schiller, senior vice-president of worldwide marketing at Apple, discusses the depth of field and bokeh (blur) effects in the iPhone 7 Plus at the unveiling in San Francisco. The feature will be available later this year in an iOS software update. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

In that vein, it may not be a coincidence that Apple has been pouring money into augmented and virtual reality companies over the past three years, according to analysts at Piper Jaffray.

A lack of 3D or VR demos at its San Francisco press event on Wednesday, however, suggests the company isn't ready to charge in that direction yet, at least not publicly. That doesn't help consumers making buying decisions right now.

The iPhone 7's other marquee feature — if it can be called that — may be more influential in that regard. Apple is indeed going ahead with a long-rumoured decision to scrap the iPhone's headphone jack in favour of connecting earphones via its Lightning charging port, or wirelessly.

Some critics don't like the way the wireless Apple AirPods look and say they're small enough to get lost easily. (Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

The new iPhones will come with Lightning-connected wired earbuds, but Apple will also sell wireless "AirPods" at a price of $219 in Canada.

Debates have raged online for the past few months ever since the jack rumours emerged, and the furor is sure to continue well after the phones are released on Sept. 16.

Moving ahead with proprietary connection

Critics have several rightful reasons to be mad. Apple is, after all, replacing a long-accepted, common and open standard with its own proprietary connection. Many consumers will now be forced to use an inelegant adapter or repurchase their audio accessories.

The AirPods, meanwhile, aren't just expensive — they also require charging and carry only five hours of battery life. The pods, which resemble miniature hair dryers, are also small and liable to get lost, not to mention foolish looking when worn.

"Say what you will about focus groups, but the earbuds Apple introduced would have been laughed off and shortcomings identified in [five minutes]," said Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based analysis firm Solutions Research Group, on Twitter.

Apple didn't do itself any favours in justifying the decision to axe the jack. "It really comes down to one word: courage," said Phil Schiller, head of marketing, "The courage to move on to do something that betters all of us."

It's an obnoxious claim, even if Apple is tapping into a real underlying trend. Audio is indeed going wireless and in a few years the whole debate may seem laughable, but in the meantime it sure looks like a consumer-hostile effort designed only to line the company's coffers.

Apple's latest device offers protection against the elements 0:53

In the end, the fact that the biggest topics of conversations regarding the iPhone 7 are around its camera — despite its potential — and headphone jack suggests there isn't much special or new about it. It certainly isn't the sort of "magical" or "revolutionary" product the company used to routinely tout.

Smartphones look to have reached their apex, with a lot of dubiously useful gimmickry now proliferating from all manufacturers in an attempt to differentiate their products. Samsung, for example, just launched the Galaxy Note 7 with an iris scanner, in case anyone finds unlocking the phone with its fingerprint sensor a step too onerous.

A truly innovative phone is tough to imagine in the current environment, and it may take someone entirely new to the field to re-imagine it, if it can in fact be done.

For consumers in the meantime, the decision on whether or not to buy a new smartphone — the iPhone 7 or otherwise — now comes down to a question of need rather than want, more so than ever before.

With no real must-have new features, the iPhone 7 is a device whose utility and desirability are truly in the eye of the individual beholder.

About the Author

Peter Nowak

Technology

Peter Nowak is a Toronto-based technology reporter and author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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