Apple this week launched its next generation of iPhones -- the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus -- maintaining a two-device product cycle that mimics last year's iPhone 5s and 5c release.
There were, however, marked differences compared to last year: Both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus use Apple's latest system on a chip (SoC) design, the A8; sport the new M8 motion coprocessor that allows the phone act as an activity tracker; and support NFC technology and Apple's forthcoming Apple Pay system. That's unlike last year, when the iPhone 5S featured got the new technology -- an A7 chip, M7 coprocessor and Touch ID fingerprint sensor -- while the iPhone 5C was largely a reskinned iPhone 5, which it effectively replaced in Apple's lineup.
The differentiators this year are less about the underlying hardware and more about the size of the devices. That includes whether or not apps (and the homescreen) can display additional or different content in landscape orientation, something that's possible on the larger iPhone 6 Plus but not on the iPhone 6. It also includes battery capacity; the iPhone 6 Plus provides more space for what seems to a larger battery. Aside from the size and the optical image stabilization in the 6 Plus, the new iPhones appear to be comparably specced.
Pre-orders for both phones begin Friday, with sales starting on Sept. 19.
Although it's easy to look at just the two new iPhones, both of which are bigger than their predecessors, as the new iPhone lineup, they're really only half of of the story -- and a less than a third the company's overall iOS product line.
Last year's two iPhones are still available -- the 8GB iPhone 5C is now free with a carrier contract and the iPhone 5S starts at $99 with a contract. The iPhone 6 Plus bridges the gap between the iPhone and iPad lines and attendees at Apple's press event said using it feels more like using a tiny iPad than a larger iPhone. That's due to its ability to display more content in landscape mode. (That feature until now was only available on Apple's tablets.)
This leaves Apple's entire mobile lineup at eight devices:
- iPod touch (which will like get an iPhone 6-like update at some point)
- iPhone 5C
- iPhone 5S
- iPhone 6
- iPhone 6 Plus
- iPad mini
- iPad mini with Retina Display
- iPad Air
Those devices hit all the major mobile form factors -- small phone, larger phone, phablet, small tablet and large tablet -- that Apple's competitors offer, including Samsung. (Samsung and Microsoft both offer larger tablets in the 12-in. range, and Apple is rumored to be planning a similar-sized iPad, possibly for release later this fall.) They offer a range of storage capacities from 8GB all the way to 128GB (with the maximum storage available in both the new iPhones and the current iPad Air). Equally important, they hit a wide range of price points with the exception of bargain basement smartphones typically tied to pre-paid carriers.
Apple is unlikely to compete in that low-end market, partly because of the very thin margins it offers.
This is a big deal. Until now, Apple has confined itself to specific segments of the mobile device market, even thought it initially defined that very market. It may not have the overwhelming diversity that Samsung and other Android manufacturers offer, or that Microsoft and its partners offer for Windows Phone and Windows 8.x mobile devices, but it now has at least one product in each space.
Apple's more restrained lineup may be better for consumers because of its simplicity. When you set the eight devices next to each other, each hitting a slightly different size and set of uses, choosing between them is much easier because the differences are immediately obvious. The only real exceptions are the difference in specs between the iPhone 5C and 5S and between the iPad mini and iPad mini with Retina Display.
Apple has another ace up its sleeve: No matter the device, iOS is largely the same. There are no manufacturer or carrier-installed modifications, skins or proprietary apps as is common with Android. Apple has been clear about this dimension of its control over iOS with carriers since the original iPhone and doesn't allow so much as a carrier logo on its devices. One iOS device looks and feels like any other, regardless of size or specs.
Does this mean that Apple will dominate every one of these categories, or even just one of them? No, though iOS isn't that far off from the parity with Android in the U.S. market. (Most reports put it within about 10% of Android's roughly 50% dominance of the market.) What it does mean is that Apple now can compete in every major category. That should give some of its competitors pause, particularly now that Apple is competing in the phablet space for the first time. Form factor and price are no longer areas where Apple can be discounted any longer.
Apple's announcements this week are likely to be disruptive and push the mobile industry to innovate further and faster. Apple is showing that it is in this race to win it.