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September 09, 2014

The iPhone Through the Years: Innovations on Innovations

Thinking “innovation” when one first hears the word “iPhone” is, for many, almost as much of a knee-jerk reaction as thinking of “red” is when hearing the word “apple.” Though some have started to question Apple's ability to continue innovating any more, a comparative look at some of the earlier Apple devices suggests that there's been a long string of innovations running through the line, though indeed, some models were more innovative than others.

It's said that Mike Lazardis, one of BlackBerry's founders, picked up an iPhone in the summer of 2007 and opened it up to get a better look at what was inside. What he found reportedly shocked him; he wasn't competing against an iPhone, he was really competing against a tiny Mac. That opened up a huge array of possibilities, from downloading and playing music to doing likewise for video, games, and beyond. But Apple didn't really invent the smartphone; IBM actually did with the Simon back in 1992. But Apple refined the concept until it became the iPhone that so many know and love, and continued to refine the concept to this day.

Each successive version offered innovations that the others did not, though as mentioned previously, some more so than others. The average number of innovations in a new iPhone, as compared to the previous generation, is about seven, to the nearest whole number. Some were fewer; the iPhone 3G had five innovations compared to the first gen model, and the 3GS had six. Both the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 5S / 5C packed in six over the previous, but it was the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S that skewed the numbers, with the iPhone 4 offering 12 innovations, and the iPhone 4S offering nine.

Some of the innovations were minor in scope; the iPhone 4, for example, offered a front-facing camera, used stainless steel in the frame, and removed the band between front and back. But some of the innovations were substantial; the iPhone 4S brought us Siri, regarded by some as perhaps the closest thing to an actual AI available for individual use. This in turn has people looking at the iPhone 6, and considering both new features and improvements that would be nice to have when the device emerges. For instance, 45.5 percent of respondents in a study wanted a sapphire screen as a new feature, and 37 percent wanted  improved battery life as an improvement over previous models.

To say that innovation is falling off in the iPhone line is at best a statement of mixed accuracy. While there are some very clear innovations in the line—the iPhone 5S and 5C, for example, offered Touch ID for App Store and iTunes purchases—there are also some innovations that almost can't be called innovations at all. Some, for example, consider the iPhone 5C's multiple available colors to be an innovation, and colored smartphones are scarcely innovative. Plus, it's worth noting that, in terms of total innovation, the iPhone has been on a downward trend since the iPhone 4, leveling off between 5 and 5S / 5C.

This of course has Apple fans watching the iPhone 6's release that much more closely. Will this be the one that skews the average back upward? Or will this be another part in Apple's downward spiral of innovation? Only time—and the release of the iPhone 6—will really tell the tale here, but it's certainly something that bears watching all the same.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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