Apple's big September event was one of the most disappointing iPhone launches in recent memory


Tim CookApple CEO Tim Cook.Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
  • Apple held a big event on Wednesday to unveil a handful of new devices, including three new iPhones and a new Apple Watch.
  • The new Apple Watch and iPhones were everything that everyone thought they would be, based on reports — no major surprises. 
  • Apple had no other surprises, and didn’t make some announcements that many were expecting.
  • While it wasn’t mentioned at the event, Apple that same day quietly retired a handful of older devices, including the iPhone 6S and iPhone SE, and the company removed all mentions of its planned wireless charger called AirPower, announced last year, from its website.

I’ve been watching Apple events as part of my job for almost a decade. And Wednesday’s event in Cupertino, where Apple unveiled the iPhone XS, XR, and Apple Watch Series 4, has to be one of the more disappointing Apple events in recent memory.

First of all, it’s important to note that Apple events are kind of in their own category. Even a yawn-inducing Apple event like Wednesday’s affair is better than most other events or conferences thrown by rival tech companies, which are typically slow, boring affairs that usually reveal some kind of fundamental disconnect with their audience. Apple’s keynote was not “bad” by any means, but this iPhone launch felt different compared to past events.

Apple iPhone Event 2018The iPhone XS.Screenshot

The new iPhone XS is an incremental improvement over last year’s iPhone X, an announcement made less impressive by the fact we’ve known about its details for months, and there were none of the surprises that Apple is known for. It’s not like iPhone details leaking before it’s officially announced is anything new, but we still didn’t get any of the magic Apple normally turns out for its iPhone events.

We knew about the fingerprint sensor coming in the iPhone 5S before it was announced, for instance, but seeing it in action at its unveiling was a real “wow” moment. Even the iPhone 6S, which was a very modest improvement over the iPhone 6, introduced 3D Touch, which has become a relatively useful feature — I use it all the time to turn on my flashlight from my lock screen, just by “pushing” into the left corner of the display. With the new iPhone XS, the biggest real difference from last year’s iPhone X is a dual-SIM card system, which you’ll find either essential or totally unnecessary, and a camera feature that allows you to change the bokeh, or blur effect, on your portrait photos after they’re already taken. It’s a cool trick, no doubt, but I don’t take that many portrait photos, and it’s unfortunately one of the only notable differences between this year’s lineup and last year’s iPhone X.

iphone xrThe colorful iPhone XR.Apple

The cheaper iPhone XR has more appealing features than the iPhone XS, putting the XS in an awkward spot. In 2013, Apple unveiled the iPhone 5S and 5C at the same event, with a similar idea: The iPhone 5S would represent Apple’s pushing the limits of technology, while the iPhone 5C would feature a similar design as that phone, but with more affordable components inside.

This time around, though, the more affordable option also looks like the superior option. If you’re okay with one rear camera instead of two (and I don’t think you’ll miss optical zooming), and an LCD display instead of an OLED display, the iPhone XR is basically better in every other way: It’s cheaper, available in more fun colors, and has a bigger display than the iPhone XS (6.1 inches versus 5.8 inches). It’s even powered by the same brains as the iPhone XS: the A12 Bionic chip. The iPhone XR even has portrait mode, despite having just a single camera lens (that portrait feature was, for a long time, limited to iPhones with two rear lenses). Will people mind the fact the iPhone XR doesn’t have a 1080p display, even if it’s technically better than the screen on last year’s iPhone 8? It may not beat any OLED display, especially on that massive iPhone XS Max, but its other features might just make it the better option between the two phones for most people, especially given its price. But if you’re going to take the iPhone XR over the XS, you may as well buy an older phone like an iPhone 7, which is only $449. As great as the iPhone 7 is, if you’re considering that as your “new iPhone” in the year 2018, I ask you: Are you really upgrading?

Apple iPhone Event 2018Apple’s 2018 iPhone lineup.Screenshot

All the new iPhones have terrible names. The new iPhones are called iPhone XS and XR — but they’re pronounced “Ten-Ess” and “Ten-Arr.” I honestly don’t know what Apple was thinking here, putting two letters next to each other and expecting people to pronounce one of them as a Roman numeral. The iPhone X was cute marketing last year to make the 10th anniversary iPhone feel special, but if Apple didn’t want to confuse people this time around, Apple should have labeled these new phones “iPhone 10S” and “iPhone 10R.” (Also, Apple didn’t have much of an explanation for what “R” stands for in “XR.” Come to think of it, it’s not clear what the “S” in “XS” stands for, either, but it’s still easier to understand than “XR” since Apple has previously labeled its more modest iPhone updates with an “S.”)

iphone seRIP iPhone SE, you beautiful creature (2016-2018)Business Insider/Steve Kovach

Fans of other Apple products got hit with some bad news, and none of it was mentioned during the event. Apple quietly discontinued several devices on Wednesday, including the iPhone 6S, iPhone X, and iPhone SE. The iPhone SE and iPhone 6S were two of our favorite iPhone models ever, and incredible values in their own right. The iPhone SE was notably the last remnant of the 4-inch iPhone era; those with smaller hands must now embrace Apple’s large-screened iPhone lineup or look elsewhere, maybe even for a used iPhone SE.

Meanwhile, the iPhone X got replaced by the iPhone XS, which would be fine if the XS were more of an upgrade, but many customers are disappointed that the cheapest OLED iPhone will still cost $999 this year. Fans were also bummed that two announcements many were hoping to hear — a new version of AirPods, and an update about the timeline of Apple’s wireless AirPower charger — were total no-shows on Wednesday. And some have already openly wondered if Apple has scrapped Airpower after people noticed that Apple removed all mention of the accessory from its website. That might be the final nail in the coffin for AirPower; Apple may have gotten a little overeager and announced something that wasn’t close to ready.

In general, Apple’s event left me feeling cold. There were no real surprises — unless you count the Apple Watch’s new ECG feature getting FDA approval, but even then, we knew about the ECG feature prior to the event thanks to Bloomberg’s reporting. Still, I was more taken aback by how by-the-book it all felt: I couldn’t believe, for instance, that Apple stuck to its guns and used the same marketing materials that 9to5Mac published in its massive scoop of the iPhone XS from August 30. Apple is valued at $1 trillion, and had two weeks between 9to5Mac’s scoop and its big iPhone unveiling, one of its most important events of the year: It couldn’t have taken some fresh photos of the new iPhones and used those instead?

apple iphone xs scoopApple blog 9to5Mac leaked some iPhone XS marketing materials weeks before the event9to5Mac

Apple iPhone event 2018Apple

Don’t get me wrong: My quibbles mean little in the long run. The names of the phones, the lack of surprises, and even the discontinued products will mean less as time goes on. What really matters are the gadgets that were announced, and how people will use them — and the iPhone XS, iPhone XR, and Apple Watch are all individually great-looking computers that customers are probably going to love. But when you look at this event through the lens of past events, and start comparing these new products to past announcements, the new iPhones, in particular, aren’t very ambitious upgrades from the iPhone X, and don’t provide a big reason to upgrade right away. In general, this event lacked the same pizzazz and excitement from past iPhone launches. It makes you wonder if Apple is holding onto bigger ideas for future iPhones, or if it has some other projects it’s currently more focused on.

A couple of years ago, I decided to join the iPhone Upgrade Program, since I had purchased a new iPhone every single year for so many years in a row. Last year, I was counting down the days until the iPhone X was available. But this year, I feel like I can wait to upgrade my phone — in fact, based on what I saw, I think I can probably wait to upgrade for quite some time. I’m happy with my iPhone X; it feels as good and quick as the day I got it, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better with iOS 12. It reminds me of something Apple’s Lisa Jackson said at Wednesday’s event: “Because [iPhones] last longer, you can keep using them. And keeping using them is the best thing for the planet.”

I guess I’ll be saving the planet by not upgrading to a new iPhone this year.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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