I assume everyone knows that Apple released new iPhones yesterday. I picked up an iPhone 6S Plus for a variety of reasons, but for now I’d like to focus on the challenge these new handsets pose to Microsoft, Lumia, and Windows phones in general.
To be clear, all the usual issues remain. For example, the iPhone retains, and will always retain, an astonishing app advantage over Windows phone, not just in raw numbers but in overall quality. If apps matter to you–and let’s face it, they matter to virtually everyone–then the iPhone–or to a slightly lesser degree, Android–is the place to be.
This is well understood, of course. What I’d like to briefly discuss here are a few things that are unique to the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, and how these things change the equation going forward.
iPhone Upgrade Program
As indicated by the title Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program is Brilliant, one of the best things about the new iPhones has nothing to do with technological advances or new product features. With this release, Apple is for the first time–in the U.S. only, and in its own retail stores only for now–selling iPhone directly to its customers on an installment plan that provides a new iPhone every year. This is, I feel, what many, if not most, Apple’s customers really want. And it doesn’t cost any more per month than the normal price of an iPhone on a two-year commitment.
I know this because I looked it up: When I purchased a 64 GB iPhone 6 Plus a year ago from AT&T on a Next plan, I was paying about $43 a month for a device that would cost $850 if you paid for it all upfront. (I paid for it outright in early 2015.) The cost for its successor, an unlocked 64 GB iPhone 6S Plus, from Apple is almost exactly the same: $42.45 per month. But in one year, I get to replace it with a new iPhone. Bonus. (Yes, the two-year contract keeps getting extended out. And yes, most customers will be happy to do so.)
To test the purchase experience, I woke up two Saturdays ago, was reminded that iPhone 6S pre-orders had started, and at the leisurely time of 10:30 am I placed my order. In past years, people would get up at 3:00 am in order to get pre-orders in. But this year, I waited and secured an appointment for launch day. No late night silliness on the pre-order, and no waiting until a later date to get teh phone.
Because I had the experienced the horrors of Apple’s in-store support before–the term “appointment” does not mean you will be helped at the time of said appointment, so bring reading material–I called the local Apple Store on Friday morning and asked if it made sense to just come in later. They recommended I come at the allotted time but admitted I would not be helped right at 1:00 pm because there was a line. So I showed up at 1:00 pm, waited about 30 minutes in a reservations line that was about 12 people deep, and then headed in to the store.
The woman who helped me was as happy as every Apple employee I’ve dealt with, and just as slow. What should have been a very quick process took over 30 minutes, and had to be completely restarted from scratch twice. But after a number of contract affirmations on my part, an identity check and an electronic credit check, I walked out of the store with a new iPhone 6S Plus. No money changed hands. And the phone was still sealed in the box, activated with AT&T, and ready to go. I unwrapped it at a local restaurant where I ate lunch.
The loan I received is through Citizens One. According to an email, I am financing $1031.06 for a device that would cost $850 outright. The annual interest rate is 0 percent, and there is no finance charge. After an initial payment of $93.81 in three days, my monthly payments will be $40.75. ($40.75 x 23 + $93.81 = $1031.06.)
(UPDATE: I neglected to mention that the $1031.06 price includes AppleCare+ protection. This costs $129 for two years for iPhone 6S/6S Plus. So $850 + $129 = $979. I suspect the $50 difference remaining is tax. –Paul)
So we’ll see how this goes. For now, I will say this: Putting aside the day one jitters–the Apple Store employee who helped me was literally conducting her first-ever sale this way–the ability to walk into a local store, pick out exactly the phone you want, and walk out of there without making a payment is huge. I would like to see Microsoft offer this kind of direct, carrier-less payment plan for its own plans, and hopefully the new Lumias will be similarly unlocked and provide universal cellular radios. (I’ve heard that they will.) But even if Microsoft matches Apple completely, the software giant’s retail presence is just a tiny fraction of Apple’s. Like so many things, this is an area where Microsoft can’t really compete, even if it does exactly what Apple does.
Since the notion of “tap and hold” is so common in Windows now–we use it in Windows 10, for example, to perform a touch-based right-click–I was unclear why Apple needed to complete revamp its screen technology and add haptic feedback to achieve this effect in iPhone. That is, why bother to make this a requirement of new phones–which include new hardware–when you could easily achieve the same on existing hardware?
Having now used 3D Touch on the iPhone 6S Plus, I’m still wondering. I find this system to be extremely unreliable and, worse, it interferes with existing user interfaces. Consider my iPhone 6 Plus (last year’s phone): If I want to select a home screen icon in order to move it or delete that app, I simple tap and hold. Eventually, all the icons on the screen starting shaking and I can proceed.
With the iPhone 6S Plus, this action has been overloaded to implement the new “peek” and “pop” features that are for some reason unique to Apple’s new phones. So when you tap and hold on an onscreen icon, you may trigger peek–where a pop-up, right-click-style menu appears, depending on which icon you chose–or you may trigger that shaking effect.
The issue is the pressure you apply, and I find the default settings to be too vague. But even changing the setting (which in typical Apple form is hidden in Settings, General, Accessibility instead of Settings, Display where it belongs) from Medium to Light doesn’t help. I get 3D Touch when I don’t want it. And vice versa. It makes moving icons around a bit maddening.
I think I’m going to get used it to, and I further think that having third party apps actually support this feature will help too. But I still don’t see why new hardware is required, and there’s no reason this couldn’t work on existing iPhones and iPads. And that haptic feedback–an internal rumbling effect that will be familiar to most Android users–is nothing special.
None of this matters. What Apple has done here is partially address the “whack a mole” complaint I’ve been making about iOS for several years. (An Apple executive even made a similar comment during the 3D Touch part of the iPhone 6S announcement.) That is, with 3D Touch, iPhone 6S users–and, later, all iOS users as new devices that support this feature are released–will be able to interact with the system more efficiently. It’s a baby step of sorts. But remember, this gets better over time, and of course other user experiences, like the new proactive Siri, help lessen the use experience gap with Windows phones as well. This is the way Apple admits it was “wrong.” By fixing the problem. Slowly.
As for “why” Apple is requiring new hardware, that one is simple: Because Apple only makes money when you buy new hardware, that’s why. Supporting this on existing phones would lengthen upgrade cycles. (I get that it may work better with new screen tech and haptic feedback. It could still work on existing hardware.)
Just a short note here. In the same way that signing in to a PC with a PIN makes typing a complex password painful, signing in to your iPhone–and approving purchases and so on–with Touch ID makes typing a PIN feel like torture. I know, it’s goofy. But once you’ve experienced how seamlessly this works, you never want to go back. And the improved Touch ID in iPhone 6S–which is allegedly twice as fast as its already speedy predecessor–is even better. It really is special. The newer Samsung phones offer a similar system that works well. Windows phones? Surely you jest. But we’ll see how or if Windows Hello transforms Windows 10 Mobile handsets. Certainly, Touch ID-style fingerprint readers are possible.
The real Lumia snobs will tell you that there is the Lumia 1020 and then there is everything else when it comes to smart phone camera quality. But that viewpoint is a few years out of date. (Indeed, thanks to software updates and general device speed, I think that the Lumia 930, Icon, and 1520 all provide superior camera experiences and picture quality to the 1020 now.) Not that it matters: The camera experience on the iPhone 6 line of handsets already far exceeds anything available on Lumia, and overall picture quality is absolutely comparable. Some Samsung phones are even better. And now, of course, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus are here, further raising the bar.
If Apple’s claims bear out–I will need some time to really test picture quality here, and in a variety of conditions–the iPhone 6S Plus in particular–it includes optical image stabilization (OIS), a feature lacking in the iPhone 6S–could emerge as the single best smart phone camera. Unless there are surprises coming in the Lumia 950 and 950 XL, this could be an uncomfortable kick in the gut to Lumia fans. Because those phones appear to simply have the same 20 MP units we already have in the Lumia 930, Icon, and 1520.
We’ll see. For now, the iPhone 6S Plus camera does everything–except offer a widescreen photo option, which I find odd–and does it well. As I discovered on various trips this year, the panorama function is particularly well, and having all the photo tools in a single Camera app instead of spreading them out to separate apps as was the case with Lumia is preferable. (Microsoft did receive that message, thankfully.) The only thing really missing is a hardware button to launch the camera. Cross your fingers that this isn’t Lumia’s only advantage moving forward.
Put simply, Apple has racked up a pretty impressive list of new differentiators here–remember, this is only the new stuff–for a so-called minor upgrade. It’s no wonder these phones are so popular in the United States in particular, and that Windows phones have edged further and further into irrelevance. After a year of Microsoft foisting low-end handsets on the world, no one in the US even considers Windows phones anymore. That, combined with the general excellent of iPhone–and the pervasiveness of Android–puts Microsoft in a tough spot.