The Apple product hype cycle has been familiar and predictable -- until now. Before the "boring" iPhone 5 announcement yesterday, the excitement around a new iGadget had a very particular rhythm. In the run-up to the official product announcement, there has been a fantasy phase, in which the rumormongers aid the general public in dreaming up the best possible thing we could get. They give us predictions based on "sources," but a lot of the time this is more about what the rumorers want than actual predictions. Then, the iThing comes out, and though it likely doesn't meet the expectations set-up in the previous phase, there are some sort of surprises. But the world doesn't really get to play with its new iToys for a while — aside from the tech writers who get to handle the iWidget for a brief few minutes after the event — leaving the world some time to talk up our new iBaby adoringly, cooing about the it features and all the potential they represent. Eventually, when we all buy the thing, people get over those features (sometimes they measure up to the potential and become irreplaceable (the touchscreen) and sometimes they fizzle out as mostly useless (Siri). But we're ready to head straight back into the fantasy phase, as the rumors about the next iThing begin. It's a cycle that all Apple products go through. But that didn't happen this time.
For comparisons sake, let's take a look at iPhone 4S, which was announced the day before the death of Steve Jobs last October and may be the last device to go through the traditional Apple hype cycle. Before it came out, many expected (or hoped for) an iPhone 5, with radically redesigned elements like a wider screen, which we did get when the iPhone 5 was unveiled nearly a year later. When that didn't happen there was some pouting, but then there was Siri. The phone wasn't just better, it was revolutionary because of the bot. The New York Times's David Pogue likened it to "magic." Wired's Brian X. Chen said it would be the reason people bought the phone. The Wirecutter's gadget guru Brian Lam called it "game changing." The personal assistant was fun for a bit, but then came the backlash, then the apathy. But it didn't matter because the iPad 3 (announced last March) and iPhone 5 rumors had already started circulating.
That isn't how things went down with the iPhone 5. The rumors didn't leave much room for dreaming because sites like 9to5Mac and iMore had accurate sourcing on design features that was confirmed by more anonymous people "close to the matter" at places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The reporting, which seemed to be drawn primarily from Apple's manufacturing supply chain, was so good that we didn't have many wild predictions before Wednesday's announcement. Instead we got the exact phone that everyone had said we'd get, as our rumormonger rankings showed. It looked different this time, sure, but because there was nothing obviously different about, it got called boring. Now, at this point no one outside of Apple has spent much time with an iPhone 5. Even for those people who got to play with it for a few minutes are imagining what it'd be like to carry around one of these things every day based on what they know about the device, not actually using it. It's thus no surprise that the thing that has captured their imaginations is the biggest obvious design change: it's got a different dock connecter, so we got a lot of complaining from the blogger world that you wouldn't be able to use all your old charging cables and accessories. After that? Well, nothing. Our collective imagination is spent. "What’s striking about the phone is what’s missing," Forbes's Timothy B.Lee.
Part of the reason for the disruption of the hype-cycle is that our expectations changed: they became much, much more realistic largely because we knew a lot more than usual going in. It's possible Apple itself has gotten leakier or more realistically, as iPhone accessories maker Hard Candy suggests, that Chinese manufacturers who make the actual devices are less scared of being smacked down by Cupertino if they're caught blabbing. "The factories have gone from, 'Shhh, hey, buddy, look at what I have for you,' to making it part of their presentation," Hard Candy's Tim Hickman told Gadget Wise's Roy Furchgott. According to Hickman these phone makers "routinely pass around design information." That kind of openness sounds like it has trickled down to the blog world.
The other variable that has changed this time around is Jobs himself, whose absence Lee believes had a lot to do with this year's announcement flub. "I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the iPhone 5, the first iPhone to be largely developed after Steve Jobs’s passing, seems to lack a comparable sales pitch," he wrote. Lee believes Jobs understood the psyche of the consumer better than Cook. "Jobs instinctively understood that most customers don’t care about technical specs, they care about what you can do with a device’s raw hardware," he said. In the Apple hype cycle, that's as much about showmanship as it is about engineering. Many have worried when Cook took over that Apple will miss Jobs' vision. But, as Walter Isaacson's biography taught us, there was also another side of Jobs, one who was obsessed with secrecy and not afraid to use fear as a management tool. It wouldn't surprise us if Jobs' personality was the driving force behind the supply chain's fear of giving up information before Apple had a chance to announce. The hype cycle was a strategy that Apple adopted as soon as Jobs returned as CEO in 1997.
Or maybe this was just a one-time thing to psyche us out. Just when we think the iPhone 5 has ended the Apple hype cycle, we're actually in another, new version of it, where Apple lowers our expectations as a ruse to quiet the rumor mill, just to wow us so hard next time around.