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Has The Thrill Gone?

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Revolutionary, evolutionary, or stationary, whichever term you think best fits the new iPhone 5, it’s difficult not to see what a globally watched and hyped event Apple’s launch was — as usual. Although the surprise this time was that there was no surprise whatsoever, that didn’t stop two million units selling out in the first 24 hours. Apple’s stock spiked to over $700 a share, and analysts expressed much confidence that sales for both the older and new iPhones would be strong for the rest of this year.  
For years, ever since Steve Jobs super-presented the iPhone in 2007, each Apple event has seen a build-up of a fever-pitch excitement amid expectations that the Cupertino company will launch something to send its fans into a frenzy, disrupt a couple of industries, and set new trends into high gear. And yes, they did just that. The iPhone changed the entire landscape for smartphones, not only as a result of what Apple did with it, but because of what other companies did in response. With the iPod and iTunes, Apple had a sweeping impact on how we listen to music and the music industry itself. With the iPad, Apple carved out a brand new space in computing — one that is making a visible difference to the personal computer industry we used to so take for granted.  
When the September 12 event at the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco came and went, many were nonplussed, wondering where the revolution was this time. But what Apple did was to finesse the iPhone. It’s faster, thinner, taller, has a better battery and some improvements to an already-popular camera, and comes with iOS 6, the newest version of Apple’s operating system for mobile devices which brings new features — or features that were missing, if you want to look at it that way. This time the industries it has disrupted have to do with connectors and adaptors, with customers rather than manufactures footing the bill. It has also given fledgling NFC technology a kick in the teeth by omitting it from the new iPhone and preventing its wide adoption and development. 
All that aside, I presume that given Apple’s ability to design to perfection it will feel incredible to touch and feel. And own. 
But revolution it isn’t. There’s nothing wrong with evolving a product; it’s just that Apple is a past master at creating larger-than-life expectations and at least some can’t help feeling disappointed that the “One More Thing” never happened. 
The tech media specially is divided over whether this meeting of expectations was enough or not. Every individual feature being presented as if it were a universe-altering phenomenon isn’t quite working this time. Is this Steve Jobs’s last project the beginning of the end of magic for Apple? Is it gradually becoming a “normal” company? Or is it keeping its surprises for another event; perhaps the much-rumoured iPad Mini launch?
Either way, the part that isn’t so disappointing is how the gap has narrowed between the iPhone and so many other worthy devices. As it is, some of the capabilities that the iPhone acquires now have been around on Android devices on which you can add more than what was intended by a manufacturer by way of apps and widgets. 
Even apart from that, for the first time in recent days, devices from HTC dare to compare with the iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy S3 continues in its aggressive way brushing aside battles and setbacks with undaunted derision. Even its Galaxy Note II is a fantastic option for those who are not necessarily looking for thin and light. Nokia’s Lumia 920, of which the world got a glance, (some of them somewhat embarrassing as faked videos were revealed) looks beautifully built and designed and can’t be written off the landscape by any means and may instead bring Nokia back to the playing field — an increasingly even one than it was a few months ago. 
As we have seen so often, companies that climb to a spot where there’s no competition inevitably stagnate and slide all the way down. Well, for a change, Apple does have competition this time around, and this should be a good thing for everyone. Consumers may love the iPhone in whatever version it appears, but it’s not as if there are no choices. 
From the chatter among the tech community it looks like Apple may be more active on the iPhone front in India this time.  If this is true, the battle will really heat up in a smartphone market that is rapidly maturing. 

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 01-10-2012)