Punctuated Gradualism and iPhone 5

Aaron Brethorst, September 14, 2012

Unless you were living under a rock this week1, you’ve heard about Apple’s introduction of the iPhone 5. Some people labeled it a disappointment due to the lack of surprise around its features. The rumor mill was exceptionally thorough this year, even producing spot-on mockups from repair parts. Others were disappointed that Apple continues to produce incremental upgrades year after year. However, I am not one of these people.

There are a number of theories in evolutionary biology that try to explain when evolution occurs. Punctuated equilibrium basically says that most species experience very little evolutionary development for most of their history but, there are, very rarely, periods of rapid change (called cladogenesis). Phyletic gradualism speculates that species evolution occurs continuously at a slow and steady pace. Lastly punctuated gradualism hypothesizes that there is a hybrid model of the previous two, featuring slow and steady progress with rare dramatic upheaval.

Were you to examine Apple through the lens of these three schools of thought, I think you could make a strong case for their history resembling punctuated gradualism. On four occasions Apple has revolutionized computing in some way2. Meanwhile, the inter-revolutionary periods have always demonstrated slow and steady progress (for example: the new iPod nanos now feature Bluetooth and a Lightning connector).

The iPhone was semi-jokingly referred to as the Jesusphone after its announcement. It revolutionized not just smartphones, but computers too! However, if you compare any of the follow-up models or OS versions with their immediate predecessors, you’ll likely be underwhelmed. Where Apple excels is in its ability to keep an eye on where it wants to be years from now, and execute in such a way that it can get there without producing lackluster interim products, like some of their competitors have in the past3.

Considering how much incredible stuff Apple has been able to pack into the iPhone in five years, you’d probably laugh at the Jesusphone today.

  • Much-improved specs across the board (8x RAM, vast CPU/GPU performance improvements, etc.)
  • 4", 640×1136px ‘retina’ display vs. 320×480px screen
  • GPS vs. Skyhook
  • LTE vs. EDGE
  • Point and shoot-quality camera vs. a 2MP camera with no autofocus or flash
  • Passbook
  • Turn by turn navigation
  • App Store (consider that everyone has an App Store now, and virtually no one had one in 2007)
  • iMessage
  • AirPlay
  • iCloud
  • Tethering
  • Search
  • Multitasking
  • Facetime
  • Copy and paste
  • Push notifications

Undoubtedly, many people will be disappointed with the evolutionary improvements seen in next year’s inevitable iOS 7 and iPhone 5S. Perhaps we’ll get NFC. Perhaps we’ll finally see multiple user accounts on iPad. Or maybe not. The new features will almost certainly underwhelm a portion of the punditocracy and yet, against all ‘reasonable’ expectations, Apple will sell tens of millions of their iDevices. Apple’s uncanny ability to produce terrific products without ever compromising on quality should be commended. I wish more of their competitors could do the same4.

Now, it’s your turn: are you buying an iPhone 5 tonight? Are you going to wait and see how the initial reviews turn out? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear from you!

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1 Even then, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rock without 3G service these days! Unless you were unlucky enough to be under a rock in San Francisco or New York and using AT&T, in which case you would have been screwed.

2 Apple II, Mac, iPod, and iOS/iPhone/iPad. I’m trying to paint this with broad strokes, hence the reason I don’t mention OS X, among other things.

3 e.g., the HTC EVO 4G. I know that review is two years old, but I think it does a great job of demonstrating a hardware manufacturer letting technology get ahead of user experience.

4 Were I Tim Cook, I’d be keeping a close eye on Amazon. Although their tablets have been underwhelming thus far, I think they’re in it for the long haul and will be fearsome competitors.