Last week, Apple released its newest iPhone, which it calls the iPhone SE. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an older device. Though the iPhone SE has the same innards—including the same processor and camera—as the recently released iPhone 6S, its external design mimics the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 isn’t, technologically speaking, particularly new: Apple started selling it before President Obama was reelected.
And it’s not like the 5 was super revolutionary when it came out, either. The iPhone 5 itself resembled the iPhone 4, first released in 2010. It was that device that introduced the flat back, the anodized-aluminum casing, and the circular, Leica-esque volume buttons now present in the SE. The SE was also the first time that Apple released a new phone with a “smaller” screen than its previous new device.
To many technology journalists, this slowing of smartphone design—indeed, this retrocession—is just one more signifier of our new era of technological boredom. Walt Mossberg, the longtime Wall Street Journal tech columnist, now at The Verge, said the smaller iPhone and iPad Pro were “business wins,” but that the iPhone 7 had better impress him this fall. “Apple needs to up its game as the premium smartphone market matures and rivals get better,” he wrote. This is not a new theme. When the company released the 6S last year, journalists described the device itself as “the peak of smartphone boredom” and all smartphones as “just boring slabs.”
It’s not like we were immune to this at The Atlantic, either. Last fall, I wrote that the best reason to upgrade was the new phone’s improved camera, and my colleague Adrienne LaFrance pointed out that phones were just computers now.
But it’s not like people don’t want to buy these devices. Apple itself implied that it was making the smaller iPhone SE because of consumer demand, saying it sold 30 million four-inch screens in 2015. People, without a doubt, still want iPhones. They’re just bored by them—or, at least, journalists are.
What’s happening here is something deeper than a slowdown to changes in form factor. The generic smartphone, the smartphone qua smartphone, is becoming background. People know what a smartphone is: a touch screen, one or three hardware controls at the bottom, volume buttons on the side, and cameras facing forward and backward. It has Facebook and it sends texts. (Making calls is a secondary feature.) It is a useful, annoying, image-making, networked slab.
And that’s fine! Every high technology moves to the background eventually. That the smartphone has done it in nine years means that the iPhone and Android’s original designers did their job well: They anticipated what basic features people would want in a device, what form factor it should take; they allowed for people to personalize the device with apps; and they shipped it. Now we’ll live with that device for a long time. Think of TVs: While they’ve changed dramatically over the past two decades, getting thinner and lighter and wider, they are still glowing boxes.