Ever since Apple's announcement of the iPhone 5, I've been seeing a bunch of articles popping up, claiming that the iPhone 5 is boring and that Apple has stopped innovating. While I don't necessarily agree (I think the iPhone 5 hardware looks great), I have a theory as to where this is coming from.
What makes the iPhone great isn't the hardware in isolation. Lots of other phones have great hardware. What makes the iPhone the iPhone is the combination of hardware and software. It's no coincidence that along with every new iPhone model, Apple always includes a new version of iOS. People buy an iPhone for how well it works. And the vast majority of that is fueled by the software.
And so, along with the iPhone 5, Apple also announced iOS 6. Here are some of the major new features of iOS 6:
Redesigned Maps, with turn-by-turn driving directions
Improvements to Siri
Shared photo streams
Updates to Safari, including tab syncing via iCloud
FaceTime over cellular
There are a few more features, but these are the ones that Apple is touting the most heavily.
To be blunt: most of these features are total snoozers. Personally, I'm really loving the tab syncing in Safari, but that's it. But that's not to say that some of these things won't be real hits — I'm sure that most iPhone users will appreciate built-in driving directions and the Facebook integration. And the deaf community seems to be pretty excited about FaceTime over cellular.
But I don't know anybody who's excited about Passbook or shared photo streams, for example. I can't remember a past iOS release that I've been so un-excited about. Typically, Apple delivers one or two killer features in iOS that I can't wait to get my hands on:
iOS 2 — the App Store
iOS 3 — Copy and paste
iOS 4 — Multitasking and FaceTime
iOS 5 — iMessage, Notification Center, and iCloud. Oh, and Siri.
So, as far as I can tell, iOS 6 is the first iOS release from Apple that's lacking a big, must-have, killer feature. I don't think it's a correct conclusion, however, to argue that Apple is out of gas, engineering wise. I think that iOS 6 represents a tremendous engineering effort. It's just that a lot of the engineering has gone into things that don't necessarily represent huge improvements for users.
The new Maps application is the best example of this — if Apple has done everything right, it will basically work the same as the old Maps application. However, behind the scenes, it was clearly a tremendous amount of effort to give Google the boot and redo everything from scratch. Apple had to get map data, render it as vector graphics, get point of interest data, and weave it all together with a search engine. Apple's iOS engineering team did a tremendous amount of work, to get Apple back to where they were before they started the Maps re-write (well, minus Google).
I have hope that future releases of iOS will get back to the business of adding must-have features. And assuming that Apple doesn't re-write major parts of the OS, I'm sure that they'll get there. And maybe this is Apple's strategy — in years when the iPhone hardware gets a major redesign, focus on minor software improvements. And in years when the iPhone hardware gets a minor update, make sure you have big software improvements to go with it (think: the iPhone 4S and Siri). But I hope that this isn't the strategy, and that iOS 6 is an aberration. Because it isn't super-exciting, and I think's diminishing the overall reception of the iPhone 5.