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Mossberg: Apple, the king of tech taste and daring, takes a breather

Cupertino gambles it can wait an extra year for a new iPhone design.

Apple Holds Press Event To Introduce New iPhone Stephen Lam / Getty

Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Recode.

At this week’s annual Apple iPhone intro event, the hall was packed, as usual. As always, the program featured gorgeous photos and videos, impressive charts, a few demos, surprise guests, and dramatic claims of improved product performance and capability.

What it didn’t feature was a new design for the company’s most important product, the iPhone. There was, as I said, a new iPhone model — two of them in fact. But the iPhone 7 and its larger sibling, the iPhone 7 Plus, look nearly identical, and are exactly the same sizes, as their predecessors from last year and the year before.

This is highly unusual, especially for a company that prides itself on being the world’s technology design leader. In its two-year release cycle, this should have been the year for an all-new-looking iPhone. But we didn’t get it. Instead, Apple is hoping you’ll buy a premium phone featuring the very nice, but aging, iPhone design it introduced in 2014. The next big design change isn’t set until 2017.

Now, there are actually lots of change inside these new iPhones, in both hardware and software. I was genuinely impressed — more than I had expected to be — by these functional improvements to an already great product, most of them unabashedly positive. The new iPhones offer much better cameras, significantly longer promised battery life, certified water resistance, a million new software features, doubled storage (at last!) and lots more. And all at the same, albeit premium, prices. The one piece of bad news: Apple removed the standard headphone jack — more on that below. This is my overview of the event; my review of the new phones is coming soon.

The risks of standing pat

If you shell out $649 (or more) for a new iPhone 7, you won’t get the familiar Apple-owner satisfaction of having friends and family and sometimes perfect strangers oohing and ahhing about the new iPhone, asking to see and hold it. In fact, all but your most sharp-eyed acquaintances won’t even notice it’s new. (You can tell by the lack of a headphone connector and a couple of new shades of black in the color choices.)

And Apple will inevitably risk sales losses (on top of recent quarterly sales declines) by causing some current users to wait another year, and others — who get their thrills from sheer newness — to switch to Android.

Less tangibly, but perhaps more importantly, it puts at risk Apple’s reputation for constantly churning out delightful, surprising new objects, an important part of the intangible mystique of one of the world’s most admired brands.*

One example of the image hit: The website College Humor quickly came up with a harsh parody video that begins with mockery of the audio jack decision but quickly escalates to an over-the-top, scathing satire about the lack of fresh thinking at Apple. It notes that the exterior design is unchanged, except for the omission of the jack. The video suggests Apple has no more ways to improve its products in the post-Steve Jobs era, only ways to make them worse.

Making the risk even riskier

And this risk is compounded by two factors, one outside of the company’s control, one self-imposed. The first is that 2016 turned out to be the year Apple’s main competitor, Samsung, produced a couple of truly beautiful, classy new premium smartphone designs. (Okay, one of them, the Note 7, has had to be recalled due to exploding batteries, but it’s not going away for very long.)

The other is that, as mentioned above, Apple chose, in the very same cycle when it is taking this gamble of standing pat aesthetically, to kill the familiar, 3.5mm audio input jack that fits every set of earbuds and headphones you own.

The Verge

Instead, it is starting a massive effort to move the public to wireless earbuds and headphones, with a wired transition consisting of earbuds that plug into the iPhone’s Lightning port — the same one you use for charging.

True, Apple is easing this transition by making its new standard Lightning headphones look almost identical to its old ones, and including them with the phone, as it always has. And it’s even throwing in a $9 adapter that will let you keep using your standard earbuds or headphones.

Not only that, but it’s created what looks like a pretty advanced pair of Bluetooth wireless earbuds that sounded great to me in a brief demo, and which will be available next month for a mere $159.

But, even if you buy the notion that this a good move in the long run, it certainly adds to the riskiness of waiting an extra year for an all-new design. It’s going to annoy a lot of people and cause them to want to hold on to a phone that has the same audio connector as all their other devices, of every type and from every manufacturer.

Why is this happening?

Apple officials insist this redesign delay is neither caprice nor complacency. While they share no details, they say the company decided that it could do something truly special if it took more time. They say that changing up the design this year just for the sake of change wasn’t the right way to go — especially when Apple sold record numbers of phones in this current form and the unspecified major new 2017 iPhone will be pretty amazing.

They give the appearance of believing that either the internal improvements will carry the day for the iPhone 7, or that Apple can weather a mild sales slump this cycle, or some combination of the two.

The lure of the future

Last March, after seeing the first of Samsung’s beautiful new 2016 models, I wrote an essay entitled “The iPhone 7 had better be spectacular.” Apple did check a few of the wish list features I included in that essay for the 2016 iPhone. But it’s clear that, if there is to be a “spectacular” new iPhone, it will be in 2017.

Still, at first glance, having just started testing the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, they do indeed seem like impressive products with worthwhile new capabilities under that familiar design. Maybe, if Apple can pound that message home, people with, say, the iPhone 6 or 5s will upgrade this year.

But they’d have to do it despite the knowledge that Apple itself expects a really special tenth anniversary model in 2017. That’s a tall order for customers whose phones, while two or three years old, still work fine.

There was much scoffing among us media types when Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller — a man I have known for many years and respect highly — called the decision to kill the standard audio jack an act of “courage.” Maybe the real act of corporate courage, of faith in your marketing and in the engineering people can’t see, was the decision to move into 2017 with an iPhone design first introduced in 2014. Because, as I see it, it’s a hell of a risk.

* This might be a good time to note that I don’t own any stock in Apple or its competitors.

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