Apple's Smartphone Revolution Is Over

The new iPhone is just a fancy point-and-shoot camera. And that’s okay!

Phil Schiller, an Apple senior vice president, talks about the iPhone's new camera. (Beck Diefenbach / Reuters)

When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone in 2007, he bestowed a lot of adjectives on the strange and smoothly hewn chunk of metal and glass. The new device, he said, was "breakthrough," “phenomenal,” and “revolutionary.” “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” Jobs said.

If that keynote has since entered into American business myth, it’s because, well, the product he was talking about totally did change the world. From its 2007 release through the depths of the Great Recession, the iPhone stood for the ubiquitously connected World to Come, a future much more vibrant and exciting than the jobless present.

Now it’s 2015, and the “breakthrough Internet communications device” that Jobs announced eight years ago is the most popular phone in the world and one of the most popular computers in history. The kaleidoscopic potential signified by that first iPhone has become a whole lot more concrete. A world with iPhones contains turn-by-turn GPS directions, shaky videos of street protests, and tender good-night-I-love-you selfies. But that same world also bursts with obnoxious tech bros, cloud-based calendar syncing errors, grammatically enigmatic Yelp reviews, and viral snuff films. The smartphone revolution is in progress, maybe it’s even mostly happened now—as of May 2015, 2 billion people worldwide had a smartphone.

Apple has not stood apart from this change. It is the world’s most valuable company by market capitalization, and its cash-on-hand could re-fund the Apollo program. So every September, the press and consumers trod their way back to the company’s proscenium, to see what new wonders it might offer. With every major Apple announcement, there is the chance of a new revolution. A new world might still be on offer—a bougie, consumerist one, but, you know, still.

Of course this is ridiculous. Apple is a computer company; it makes discrete software and hardware. We can little more expect it to enliven our sense of history than to resolve the tension in the South China Sea. Wednesday’s Apple announcement took the form of 12 white guys (with variously tucked and untucked shirts) and several women boasting about what were largely incremental updates to software and hardware. They rolled out a larger version of the iPad Pro, a revamped and app-ified set-top box for televisions, the Apple TV, and an update to the iPhone line.

Smartphones generate two-thirds of Apple’s revenue, but they only got about 25 minutes of this event’s two-plus hours. Since 2009, iPhones have updated on two cycles: a major reboot, when the form factor changes and the integer increases (iPhone 4, 5, 6); and a minor upgrade, when the company makes everything vaguely better and tacks a letter or two on to the end. This year’s new model falls on the minor beat—it’s the iPhone 6S. The 6S is faster than last year’s 6, it comes in a new color (“rose gold,” i.e., pink), and it uses a new force-sensitive touch interface. These are interesting changes, in that it will be interesting to see how developers use them but they mean little for users right now.

The iPhone 6S—and its similarly upgraded and bigger cousin, the 6S Plus—do feature a new camera, and it’s there that the company lavished most of its presentational attention. The phone’s new back-facing camera is 12 megapixels, and Phil Schiller, a senior vice president at Apple, went into great technical detail describing how the device can sense more pixels without adding digital noise. The phone’s front-facing camera was also improved to five megapixels.

Schiller also clued us into the company’s photographic philosophy. Pictures, he said, are “magical moments frozen in time to keep forever and share with family and friends.” (He’s not the only philosopher of photography who believes pictures to be magical.) And in order to increase either the magic or the memorableness, Schiller also announced Live Photos, a new feature which captures a second of video and sound on either end of a photo. It turns photos, essentially, into 2-second videos (or, depending on your generational loyalties, Harry Potter-style portraits).

When people weigh whether to buy new iPhones, I expect these will be the changes that they focus on. They’re definitely what makes me consider upgrading. Many of the innovations of the original iPhone—the apps, the touchscreen, the ostentatiously rendered web browser—have flowed to the rest of Apple’s competitors. But dang if the company doesn’t know how to make a good camera. Apple’s new iPhone keynotes are now little more than exceedingly well-covered announcements of new, networked point-and-shoots.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Photography really is magical. People find it meaningful to make images from their daily life—images of their friends, families, and surroundings. And as Apple has become a little boringer, as its revolutionary government has become an ancien regime, I think it’s fitting that its once-meaningful devices now want to mirror the meaningful things in our own lives.