How the iPhone and its "tick-tock" release cycle made consumers care about software
You can call Apple anything you like. Revolutionary, boring, over-hyped, under-valued, a religion, a computer company -- Apple has been called each of these in roughly equal measure, and we'll probably never stop arguing about what Apple is. But the one indisputable thing about Apple is that the company is responsible for the modern smartphone and, by extension, the consumer software boom we find ourselves in, with bits and bytes becoming increasingly important to, well, everyone.
Nearly 50 billion app downloads within a five-year period show just how pervasive software has become to everyday life, and for that we can thank Apple -- and, more specifically, the iPhone.
The iPhone made popular many aspects of software we take for granted -- the ability to install an application without restarting a device, a centralized app marketplace, instant downloads... It showed the value of Web-based applications, largely because at first Apple didn't allow developers to build applications for the platform; then it showed what developers are able to do with a few SDKs, a couple of APIs, and an Apple Developer account.
But perhaps the most notable thing the iPhone did was make software one of, if not the, most important aspects of a device. It made operating systems exciting, or at least noteworthy, to average people. And it did so largely because Apple insists on making every other iteration of the product so damned boring.
Pre-iPhone, most people probably didn't care much about which operating system their computers, let alone their cellphones, were running. Why would they? Windows was something that flashed across their screen when they powered their computer on, nagged them when Microsoft Word crashed, and, occasionally, turned their devices' screen into an emissary for the blue death. Explaining the differences between Windows ME and Windows XP to the average computer owner was probably a bit like explaining the differences between veganism and vegetarianism to someone whose diet is comprised mostly of fast food and cheap meat.
That, combined with the multi-year waits between new versions of Windows (and computer users' tendencies to "upgrade Windows" by purchasing a new computer) made software somewhat boring. You got Word. You got Excel. You got Solitaire, Microsoft Paint, and Minesweeper. Once your computer stopped working -- and it was practically guaranteed to stop working -- you bought a new one with pretty much the same software on it.
Apple changed that with the iPhone, the App Store, and its "tick-tock" release cycle. Introducing the App Store in 2008 turned the iPhone (and, now, the iPad and iPod touch) into devices that place an amazing importance on software. But it's the way Apple releases its hardware that really shows just how important software has become.
There's almost no point in getting excited for this year's iPhone. It'll probably look much like -- or exactly like -- the iPhone 5. Sure, it might feature a faster processor or a slightly better camera, but, for the most part, the iPhone whatever-they're-going-to-call-it is already last year's news, because of Apple's tick-tock product cycle. Last year was the "tick," the notably different followup that introduced a new form factor and gave pundits something to point to and say, "This is different."
This year is the "tock," the modest refinement to last year's product that will probably be notable mainly because of its software upgrade. To play on one of Apple's favorite sayings, that its hardware and software act as a body and its soul: Last year's iPhone is physically different, as it's grown taller, thinner, and more powerful. This year's iPhone will probably have discovered the software equivalent to meditation, or chakra, or whatever metaphor you think is right for upgrading its "soul."
That's why WWDC, Apple's developer (and press, really) conference held in San Francisco, sold out in less than two minutes. That's why iOS users and the press collectively shit themselves over the announcement that Jony Ive, who oversees all hardware design at Apple, is the new head of Human Interface design. And that's why reports that Ive may have delayed iOS 7's release because he wanted to overhaul iOS (and reports debunking those previous reports) matter so much.
People want to see something new from Apple. They want to be able to explain to their parents, their readers, their spouses, or their cousins why they should buy one iPhone instead of the other. They want to believe that iOS 7 will be noticeably different from iOS 6. And damn it, they want to download Uber, or Evernote, or "Angry Birds," or any of the other 750,000 apps available in the App Store. Because they've got the iPhone, and even if they don't have the newest one, they can still have the newest version of iOS, the newest applications.
The "tick" in the iPhone's release cycle is great for hardware enthusiasts. The "tock" is great for people who use their iPhones every day and want to upgrade the devices they already own -- and the best way to do that is by updating the software.