What iPhone 5 And The New iPods Tell Us About Apple's Post-PC Vision

If Apple had a motto for its product strategy, it would be, "Don't take anything for granted." The new iPhone and iPods are re-formed from the guts to the skin: Faster processors, faster connection speeds, better cameras, more microphones, new connectors, taller displays, and they're thinner and lighter to boot. iTunes and the App Store are redesigned to feel more modern and help with content discovery. These product improvements are aimed at convincing consumers that there's enough value to upgrade from their current Apple products, as well as growing market share by convincing non-iPhone users that it's finally time to trade in their BlackBerrys, Droids, and flip phones and join the iOS fold. Apple will be successful on both fronts -- not just because its products are well designed, but also because Apple's product marketing is on point. It will be the fastest iPhone rollout ever, available in 100 countries on 240 carriers by the end of the year. Older models of the iPhone will be cheap (4S for $99 with contract) or free (4 with contract)--including on Verizon and Sprint in the US, not just AT&T, which will positively impact market share.

But I think there's a more interesting story to be told than just market share. These products tell us a lot about Apple's vision for the post-PC future. Apple has sold more than 400 million iOS devices through June 2012, and it has more than 435 million iTunes accounts with one-click purchasing, so it will certainly have great influence over the post-PC experience of many millions of consumers. And here's what that experience is likely to be:

  • The phone is a central brain for your sensor-laden devices. Other companies, like HP, have described a future vision where the phone in your pocket is your unique identifier that activates other screens you encounter in the world. I'm not so sure that's Apple's vision. The iPhone 5 does not include NFC (described by Phil Schiller, SVP of Worldwide Marketing, as "technology in search of a solution"), which could have been an enabling technology of that scenario. It does include Bluetooth 4.0 with low energy (BLE), which enables data-only transfers between sensors -- basically, it allows sensors to talk to each other, and at a greater distance and more securely than NFC does. What does that mean? It means you're going to see a lot more sensor-laden accessories for the iPhone and iPod Touch that amplify the "perception" of those devices. So the perception work that your phone is currently doing (through the cameras, microphones, accelerometers, etc.) will be distributed to multiple devices on and around your body. Those devices don't necessarily need processors, like Google Glass has, but they will be doing a lot of phone-like things, and some will have displays. So what is a phone? It's your signal to the Internet, via cellular network and Wi-Fi. And in Apple's view, it's the brain that coordinates the signals it gets from sensor-laden wearables. 
  • But your phone is not your only "phone." The iPod Touch can do literally everything the iPhone can do, except send data over the cellular network. You can run apps. You can communicate with Messages and FaceTime. The iPad and Mac, too, can do those things, and the 3G and 4G iPads can use the cell network too. In Apple's post-PC vision, you have lots of "phones"; in Microsoft's vision, you have lots of PCs. The definitions of those devices are converging, and those visions are not as distinct as they once were. In the post-PC era, computing is a behavior, distributed across many devices.
  • Ergonomics and industrial design matter a lot. The new iPhone and iPods have seductive industrial design, and they feel good in your hand. The taller-but-not-wider solution to getting a larger screen on the iPhone means that your thumb has to do less reaching across the screen. Apple has elegantly solved a problem that niggles me about my Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone -- the screen is just too wide. The materials Apple uses on the new iPhones are also exquisite and heighten the contrast between Apple and its many competitors. Design will be especially important as the post-PC era progresses and we wear our technology on our bodies -- that's why wearables firms like Jawbone hire top-tier industrial designers to shape their products.

Thinking about Apple's post-PC perspective is important, because it tells us how it'll approach competition as the post-PC era progresses. Apple didn't launch an "iGlass" headset today, but it's preparing for the day when the iPhone competes not just with the Samsung Galaxy S III but with Google Glass as well. The next phase of computing won't be a battle for our pockets (as this one has been), but for our sensor-laden bodies and the environments we inhabit. Apple is ready, and it won't be the only one.

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