Why unboxing the latest iPhone ain't what it used to be

These days you unpack a new device only to discover that it does exactly what the old one did, just a little faster

An attendee takes a closer look at the Apple iPhone 15 Pro during an event at Apple Park campus in Cupertino, California on September 12. Despite now-incremental improvements in technology, Apple's devices still sell in the millions. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

So, there I was at 4pm last Friday, repeatedly clicking refresh on Apple’s homepage and creating my own internal hysteria as the latest iPhone, after a little delay that felt endless, went live to order.

I had no idea what demand for the new device would be – muted reaction from critics is never a good sign – so I wanted to ensure that I was among the first in the virtual line.

For more than three years, my perfectly useable iPhone 11 has been my window into social media, emails, movies and music. But tech times change quickly and I have succumbed, somewhat embarrassingly, to obsolescence anxiety – what was very recently the cutting edge of tech now feels like I’m carrying around an Olivetti typewriter.

Now, as I write this, I am shamefully embarrassed to be more than a little excited about the delivery of the iPhone on launch day.

But the uglier truth is this: I will be disappointed. Feel free to check back with me.

I have long known and long argued to anyone who would listen that there are very few things more anticlimactic than upgrading to a new iPhone.

Yes, there’s the joy of unpacking it from its beautifully designed box, throwing aside those bits of paper with, presumably, important words on them, and then peeling back the protective plastic screen cover.

Then you wait as you transfer data from the old phone into the new. And then … yup, it does exactly what the old phone did, but a little faster.

It looks the same, it feels the same. It has, for the most part, exactly the same functionality. Unless you’re a professional photographer or videographer, the improvements in the quality of the photos and movies it can take are indiscernible.

But Apple and iPhone never used to be like this. Back when the world was young, we would be on the edge of our seats, literally, as we watched Apple co-founder Steve Jobs – an uber-nerd with a surprising amount of stagecraft and showmanship – tell us about “One more thing…”. There were gasps. There was applause. There was genuine excitement. These were tangible steps forward in consumer tech.

Apple and iPhone never used to be like this ... There was genuine excitement and tangible steps forward in consumer tech

Now these steps forward are incremental at best – better processor, better battery life, better lenses or camera sensors.

Endless arguments are made that we’ve reached peak technology, or that a three-year pandemic pushed back major advances. I will leave it to the bloggers and the YouTubers to fill that space in your day.

Apple launch events, while still being more compelling than historic rival Microsoft’s ever were, are not the things they used to be – and Apple knows this. Today, they’re less about specific products and more about specific features – a new USB charging port, titanium structure, Dynamic Island and other doodahs – nothing that is really going to change your world.

The events are really about Apple as a brand and its long-held belief it sits at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. (As opposed to the likes of Facebook and Google which sit at the intersection of advertising sales and user-data collection.)

Apple’s counter-positioning, once its greatest weakness in the face of corporations like Microsoft and more recently Samsung, has become its greatest strength.

Today, it is one of the world’s most valuable companies, a position it hasn’t achieved by being a corporate slouch, and despite its ability to print its own money, it projects a friendly image, welcoming people from all walks of life, all in pursuit of a better world with amazing technology at its core.

And that is what we buy into as we await new iPhones and then, inevitably, reach for our credit cards (or, more likely, Apple Pay).

Apple’s Designed in California-branded devices sell in the millions to people who spend an amount of money on a relatively short-lived product that our parents would spend on something they would want to bequeath to their children.

I also like to think that Apple is an amazing place to work – a place filled with people roller blading to their next beanbag-based brainstorming session.

Nevertheless, Apple’s projection of its values, and the halo effect this brings to all its products, is something we should all learn from and aspire to.

Those product launches were once a parade of middle-aged white men, Jobs included, describing in cliched hyperbole their latest, greatest breakthroughs. Thankfully, those days have gone.

Today, in slick launches that are filmed in advance, Apple presents folk from across the company, and not just those lounging in the c-suite. Men, women, older, younger, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and people of South Asian descent – all form an important part of the image Apple presents to the public.

For that alone, we should all be happy. That is what we’re buying into. And that’s what remains exciting about Apple.

Published: September 22, 2023, 7:00 AM