Like or not, the iPhone still sets the tone in the mobile business, even if there are tons of other smartphone makers out there that have the resources to come up with meaningful innovations in the mobile landscape. Yet it’s Apple that sets the tone for the rest of the industry to follow, whether it’s creating its own features or reinventing features that others have made.
The smartphone revolution started with the iPhone in 2007 when Apple told everyone touchscreens are the new norm. Many people dissed the concept, but soon everybody was scrambling to adapt their operating systems (Google’s Android was initially supposed to work on a BlackBerry-like device) and gadgets to fit the new trend. A year later, Apple introduced the App Store, another significant milestone in smartphone evolution that actually put the “smart” in smartphone.
Since then, with every iPhone iteration, Apple has improved software and hardware in an increasingly more competitive mobile landscape. Google emerged as the chief rival and has won a bigger chunk of the overall market – yet it’s still the new iPhone that will tell us what to expect from mobile devices in the coming years.
Some people would point out that the iPhone never kept the pace with Android rivals when it comes to processor clock speed and cores, the amount of RAM, camera megapixels or size. That’s the easiest thing to do when you’re building computer hardware: just bump up the specs and hope that software will take care of everything else.
As for the software side of the business, I’m not arguing iOS invented everything that’s good for the mobile ecosystem because it didn’t. Neither did Android or Windows Phone. Instead, each company developed new features and adapted features the competition already used. But iPhone, as a whole, still sets the tone – let’s look at its history.
iPhone 6s’s 3D Touch
The iPhone 6s’s signature feature is UI gesture for both its own apps and third-party apps. Many developers have already adopted the new gesture, which requires both dedicated software and hardware components to work, with some curious developers already highlighting the potential doors 3D Touch will open in the future. The feature is currently limited, offering shortcuts to iOS users both on the home screen and in apps.
You’ll quickly point out that nobody else has it, so nobody is following Apple yet. Huawei incorporated it into a smartphone of its own that launched just before the iPhone 6s and showed it off in a way that makes fun of Apple. However, Android itself doesn’t natively support the feature yet.
Since then, various reports have suggested the Galaxy S7 will come with 3D Touch support. Even newer rumors are saying that the supply chain is already foreseeing an increased adoption of force-sensitive display technology next year, with companies like Samsung and Xiaomi. Parts suppliers expect the technology to become a standard for premium smartphones next year, with at least three Taiwanese companies having entered the market.
iPhone 6’s Apple Pay
Yes, Apple was not first to bring payments to smartphones. We’ve had Google Wallet and other NFC-based payment initiatives for years, yet they never really took off. Apple included an NFC chip on its 2014 iPhones to work with Apple Pay, and it convinced all the major banks in the U.S. to support it. Mobile payments saw such an impressive growth in a short amount of time that it forced Samsung to create Samsung Pay and launch it in the months that followed the iPhone 6’s announcement. Soon after that, Google decided to reinvent Google Wallet and launch Android Pay complete with native fingerprint-recognition support in Android M, some two years after the iPhone 5s first brought the fingerprint sensor.
iPhone 5s’s Touch ID
Launched in 2013, the fingerprint sensor on the iPhone 5s would initially only let you unlock the iPhone and make purchases from the App Store. Developers were not allowed to use the functionality, and Apple only let them in on the technology a year later. But smartphone makers including Samsung and HTC were quick to adopt fingerprint sensors. Each company had to create its own software for it, as Google did not support fingerprint sensors in Android until the release of Android 6.0 this year. The reason, Motorola later revealed, was that Google had to ditch plans to add a fingerprint sensor to the 2014 Nexus 6 as Apple simply snatched up the best sensor maker available at the time.
iPhone 5s’s 64-bit processor
Apple surprised the world by announcing the iPhone 5s would have a 64-bit A7 processor, as it was the first mobile device to deliver 64-bit support. Many deemed it as a marketing gimmick but were soon convinced that Apple’s desktop performance claims were real. Competitors were shocked to see Apple pull this move, and some are still struggling to catch up. Just ask Qualcomm about the issues it had with the Snapdragon 810 earlier this year, a 64-bit eight-core CPU that was found to be overheating in its first iterations. Qualcomm reportedly lost Samsung’s Galaxy S7 because of that. And now rumors are circulating that even the Snapdragon 820 is overheating – Qualcomm is denying those too, just as it did with the predecessor.
Samsung also had to reinvent its mobile processors to adapt to the change, and while the Exynos chips inside the Galaxy S6 and Note 5 deliver a stellar performance, the iPhone 6s will still come on top as a better performer in usage tests.
iPhone 4s’s Siri
Sure, Siri isn’t necessarily better than Google Now or Cortana in real-life tests, though Apple has significantly improved it over the years. But when it came out in 2011 it was already ahead of what the competition could do. Google Now only launched a year later in a version of Jelly Bean, and Microsoft’s Cortana took even longer to come to mobile devices.
iPhone 4’s Retina Display
Apple was late to increasing the size of the iPhone and launching its own phablets. And some will point out the iPhone 6s still has an HD display in a world where competitors are making 2K and 4K smartphone screens. But the iPhone 4, introduced in mid-2010, delivered a high pixel-per-inch display density that was unavailable on any of the competing devices. Admittedly, these devices (HTC EVO 4G and Galaxy S) had bigger screens but not better resolution. And it took competitors a few years to consistently beat Apple when it comes to this particular metric (PPI), but they made a priority of it, choosing not only to increase screen size but also screen quality in the years that followed. Not even the Galaxy S2 had a Retina-grade display when it launched a year later.
Apple has never been interested in packing more megapixels than competitors in its iPhone cameras over the years. But the iPhone has consistently been the most praised camera phone in reviews, and the most popular on Flickr, a photo-sharing site where it even beat traditional camera makers. It’s no surprise then to see competitors including Samsung and even Google say on stage during recent product announcements that their new devices (Galaxy S6 series and Nexus 6P) are ready to offer a better camera performance than the latest iPhones, which are seen as benchmarks for mobile camera performance.
iPhone’s build quality
Yes, the iPhone 6 Plus bends, the iPhone 4 had antenna problems, and there always are minor issues that affect some buyers, just like with any other phone.
But the overall build quality and design have, over the years, forced others to adapt and make devices people want to buy. Some of them are downright iPhone clones – just look at Xiaomi phones, at Samsung’s iPhone or HTC’s iPhone. Apple’s insistence on premium materials including glass and metal and attention to detail trained buyers into expecting the same design consistency from competitors. That’s how the HTC One M7 and Galaxy S6 emerged, with the latter seeing a huge response from the public and media, as it was Samsung’s first flagship handset that didn’t live inside a plastic shell. Even the OnePlus X looks like a strange mashup of both the iPhone 6 and iPhone 4.
Oh, and who could forget the HTC One A9:
2015 has been a solid year for mobile devices, and we’ve already shown you some cool inventions in the mobile landscape. These include the Galaxy S6’s curved display, the USB Type-C of Android M, the iPhone 6s’s 3D Touch, the Droid Turbo 2’s shatterproof display and Fujitsu’s Iris-scanning technology (also coming to Windows 10 flagships this year).
Microsoft’s Windows 10 Continuum feature is also a rather sophisticated phone feature, turning a handset into an almost full-fledged Windows computer. That’s something others don’t yet have.
But it’s likely that until Apple does it – the right way, as it would say on stage – some of these features won’t become as relevant to regular consumers as they should be. And thus as long as Apple doesn’t deem them to be cool enough, other manufacturers might not find them as must-have tricks for new devices.