Apple’s September event where the iPhone 15 lineup is widely expected to be announced is just a few days away and – despite the numerous information leaks from different sources over the last few months – anticipation is somewhat higher than usual. Maybe it’s the transition to USB-C (practically confirmed for all models) or the interest regarding the performance of the new A17 processor (the first of its kind) or the hope that Apple will be doing something actually useful with the Dynamic Island (now that all models will be offering it), or all of the above, or something else entirely (depending who you ask).
There’s also this lingering feeling, though, that the iPhone 15 may end up being yet another iterative smartphone in a long line of iterative smartphones Apple has released since the iPhone X. It’s not something just tech reporters – who want to see real change in order to get genuinely excited nowadays – are concerned about. Consumers are also getting tired of the (very) small list of improvements or additions every manufacturer is seemingly going for, year after year – hence the sharp decline in smartphone sales globally. Boredom seems to have set in, which is definitely not what Apple would like to see in any of its major product categories (let alone the one driving most of its profits).
So the iPhone 15 lineup needs to deliver, especially if the Pro models prove to be even more expensive in the current economic climate. The problem: that desirable sense of immediately apparent, material progress in the user experience of a new iPhone can’t be achieved by hardware improvements alone or through a few feature tweaks here and there. There needs to be more and it needs to be done in a different way.
Sadly, it’s not clear whether Apple is actually able to do that. Here’s why.
Boring software upgrades make for a stagnant user experience
It’s all about the software, of course. Progress in hardware means that modern smartphones can offer more, yes: people can snap better photos with an improved camera system or consume content in a more enjoyable manner using a higher-quality screen, for instance. But the way an iPhone feels in operation is not about sensor Megapixels or display dots-per-inch or how fast its port allows the transferring of large files. It’s about responsiveness (what consumers perceive as general “speed” when using a phone) and overall functionality (what consumers can do with their phones and how easily that’s done on those phones). All of that has to do with software, not hardware, at least in Apple’s case.
It’s fair to say, though, that the company has been unable to make recent iPhones feel like a clear, impressive upgrade over their predecessors (over older iPhones even). Yours truly can attest to this fact through personal experience as an iPhone X, iPhone 12 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro Max owner: while iOS has obviously progressed since 2017, and each model offered more features in terms of hardware, using these three smartphones remained pretty much the same for half a decade. After upgrading to the iPhone 14 Pro Max in October 2022 and using it as his daily driver for the better part of a year, yours truly briefly returned to the iPhone 12 Pro Max a few weeks ago and… guess what: no major differences in operation. Practically the same phone.
Personal experience aside, though, every colleague, friend and relative, when asked, expressed pretty much the same opinion: their new iPhone, be it a regular, Plus, or Pro model, is great, but 90% of the time – after the novelty of those few improvements wears off – it just feels like the same smartphone as before. That’s to be expected, as 90% of the time most people do the same ordinary, everyday things every modern (let alone expensive) smartphone has mastered by now. These, though, happen to be the same things that Apple has not done much to improve, enrich or speed up for a long time now, so there’s hardly any reason for most people to even consider buying a new iPhone, let alone invest in a Pro model.
The “built for the new iPhone” conundrum
Ironically enough, Apple’s pro-consumer approach to iOS advancement – offering the latest version of it to all devices capable of supporting it – is not helping: consumers are perfectly aware of the fact that they don’t have to buy the latest iPhone to gain access to the latest operating system features. Since they already know that the user experience itself will be exactly the same, they can just update their current iPhone’s iOS version to the latest one and enjoy new functionality, for free. That’s why upgrading to a new iPhone model has largely become a matter of hardware, not software – which has led Apple fans to longer upgrade cycles, creating something of a problem for the company.
Apple has no one else to blame but itself for the whole situation, though, because there is actually a way out of this. It’s just that the company seems too lazy to implement that strategy: conceive and develop new functionality so groundbreaking, so advanced, that it can only be powered by its latest and greatest chip. That kind of functionality would prove desirable enough to warrant a lot of iPhone upgrade sales. Instead of that, sadly, what we get every fall is a new iPhone, based on a new chip, offering a generous uplift in performance… that’s hardly demonstrable. The additional processing power is seemingly only utilized by a handful of games (not even the most popular ones) and maybe by some extra photography tricks (if that). It’s definitely not apparent in the new iPhone’s operating speed or the user experience of the device overall (which is why consumers feel they are using pretty much the same phone).
The elephant in the room, of course – when it comes to this “built for the new iPhone” software strategy – is the issue of trust. Simply put: if Apple were to introduce such exclusive new functionality, can consumers trust the company’s claims that these desirable new features actually need the extra power of its latest processor? That they would not work as intended on less powerful Apple processors, on older iPhones? It would be very hard to actually determine and verify that, because Apple would never grant to independent parties the kind of low-level access something like this would require. It would also be hard for everyone to take Apple – a company widely known for its marketing focus – at its word. As a result, innovative iOS features taking advantage of new chips never get developed. What we are left with, instead, is impressive hardware progress without the software progress to match. Which is a sad state of affairs, really.
Let’s be honest here: if people keep buying expensive new iPhones and keep getting the exact same old user experience for much longer, they’ll be inclined to postpone upgrading to the next model for as long as humanly possible. That holds true for all iPhones. But when it comes to the iPhone Pro or iPhone Ultra models in particular, if Apple means to start charging considerably more for them – and if it truly means to further differentiate between those models and the regular ones – then the company will have to grant the Pro models some exclusive noteworthy functionality in the future. It will have to elevate the user experience many consumers expect they’ll be paying extra for. It will have to make these phones seem and feel faster in operation. Otherwise, what’s the point of the “Pro” moniker anyway?
That’s why Apple needs to change its approach regarding software features and exclusive functionality for its smartphones. It’s obviously too late to do so with the iPhone 15 lineup and iOS 17, but it’s something it should definitely look into for the iPhone 16 lineup and iOS 18. If the company chooses not to, then it’s practically just giving more and more people less and less reason to upgrade their regular iPhones to Pro models or their current Pro models to newer ones. As long as the new exclusive functionality in question really does take advantage of the new hardware, as long as it’s stuff the A18 makes possible that the A17 is unable to offer, then it’s a marketing tool worth using. Yours truly, for one, is here for it.