Five Things Apple Got Wrong with the iPhone X (and How to Fix Them)

iPhone X close-up

Cupertino, We Have a Problem — Actually, Make That Five.

Prior to its launch, the iPhone X was being called “the most highly-anticipated version” of the phone to date, and with good reason. Almost two years before the iPhone X’s release, back when people still called it an iPhone 8, rumors of Apple’s plans for a major iPhone design overhaul began to emerge. The rumors, deemed credible and eventually confirmed by Apple, promised an iPhone that would be “entirely screen” (to use Apple’s language), be wirelessly chargeable, and possess a state-of-the-art facial recognition feature for security.

The information leaked about the redesign, while slight, was enough to have many Apple fanboys salivating. The prospect of an all-screen iPhone was particularly exhilarating, since competitors such as Samsung were making advancements in display technology that threatened to leapfrog Apple (see, for instance, the edge-to-edge OLED screen of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, released over a year before the iPhone X but which, luckily for Apple, also had a tendency to explode).

The iPhone X (the X, being a Roman numeral, means it’s pronounced “ten” like the number instead of “ex” like the letter) was so named to recognize the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. Apple skipped the model 9 entirely, promising the X would be special, the “iPhone of the decade” if you will. The hype surrounding this device was immense, and consumer excitement was so high prior to the its release that analysts predicted the iPhone X would drive Apple sales for years to come.

But here’s the thing about hype: it’s a double-edged sword, and if your product can’t live up to it, the backlash from it can cause plenty of damage on its own. The iPhone X was released on November 3, 2017, and almost right away the word-of-mouth from early adopters seemed to range from negative to lukewarm-positive, and a hell of a lot worse than the ecstatic reviews of mainstream publications, anyway. Anecdotally, it was said the iPhone 8/8 Plus were outselling the flagship iPhone X, but without sales data or randomly-sampled poll numbers, it was a guessing game. Then in late January 2018 it was reported that Apple had slashed production of the iPhone X in half. According to Nikkei, who broke the story, this huge adjustment in production was due to soft iPhone X sales in three key markets during the final quarter of 2017. Apple warehouses were said to be filling up with iPhone X’s, exactly the opposite of the production issues Apple must ordinarily grapple with: keeping up with demand.

Don’t start feeling sorry for Apple, though. Its mantle as the most profitable company in the world isn’t up for grabs just yet. The company isn’t even suffering financially from these alleged iPhone X production issues. In fact, because the company’s sales of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are reportedly stronger than expected, it appears the 8 model is cannibalizing sales of the X, which keeps the money in-house. Research from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) backs that idea up, estimating that in the first month the iPhone X was available, sales of it accounted for just 30% of all iPhone sales, while sales of the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus accounted for a combined 40% of all iPhone sales.

Apple CEO Tim Cook won’t publicly admit to any failings or issues with the iPhone X (but then, he couldn’t, could he?). In the most recent quarterly earnings report from Apple, Cook denied Apple had any disappointment with the iPhone X, claiming it had exceeded the company’s expectations. The iPhone X “has been our top-selling iPhone every week since it shipped in November,” Cook stated.

Read carefully, however, Cook’s statement doesn’t actually contradict anything that’s been reported — including the data from CIRP. Nor has Apple released sales figures contradictory to those proffered by CIRP, for that matter. Rather, Cook’s statement merely shows a different way to parse that data, by viewing sales of the 8 and 8 Plus to be separate and distinct from one another rather than combining those sales.

Whether the iPhone X’s softer-than-anticipated sales are indeed causing stress behind closed doors at Apple is anyone’s guess. What’s clear though, is it’s not affecting the company’s bottom line. Referring again to that most recent quarterly report, Apple posted record revenues and record profits once again. Sales of iPhones overall were down slightly from the previous year, but this was more than made up for by the higher price tag of the iPhone X.

Lower overall iPhone sales is another indicator the iPhone X isn’t the phone everyone expected. With so many consumers who planned on buying an iPhone X changing their minds and buying an 8 or 8 Plus instead, that begs the questions: What is it about the iPhone X that’s scaring away customers? and What mistakes did Apple make that led to this X Backlash?

Five iPhone X Problems

Several months of consistent and regular use of a phone will highlight its issues, and the iPhone X has no shortage of those compared to recent models. In retrospect the following list of five mistakes Apple made with the iPhone X now appears fairly obvious. Each issue is discussed in some detail and then a solution is proffered so that they might be avoided in the upcoming iPhone 11.

Problem One: Facial Recognition

For a number of reasons, Face ID, Apple’s name for its facial recognition biometric security feature, is a disappointment. That Apple was able to release the feature in the iPhone X given how insecure its implementation was in that phone probably had more to do with everyone’s surety that “the future is biometrics” than anything about the iPhone X specifically. Apple hit the ball out of the park with its first biometric advancement, the fingerprint scanning techi that’s called Touch ID in iPhones. It has been expected to do so again with Face ID.

Meanwhile, Touch ID has spawned biometric fingerprint scanning in competing phones that has become the de facto standard in the industry. The problem is, Touch ID wasn’t an option in the iPhone X due to the commitment Apple made to the phone being all-display, leaving no real estate left for a fingerprint scanner / home button. With an alternative thus necessitated, and Apple so proficient at inventing new tech, enter Apple’s newest groundbreaking technology, a biometrics security feature using facial recognition called Face ID.

To be fair, Face ID is groundbreaking. But is it practical and secure in a mobile device? Not really. Technically, Face ID works well enough, meaning it unlocks your phone if yours is the face in front of it, and it doesn’t if your friend’s is the face in front of it. But here are its two main problems:

(1) It’s a clunky implementation. Face IDrequires the iPhone to be held up as if raising it in a toast, at which point the user must then somewhat conspicuously stare into the camera/sensor. See what I mean? Clunky.

(2) It’s far from foolproof. The data (an algorithm from key data points mapping the structure of your face) needed to open the phone is collected passively rather than actively like with Touch ID. What that means is, if you’re holding your wife’s phone and you point it at her face, you have unlocked her phone. Because the phone owner did not herself initiate the unlocking of it, that’s why the data is passively collected. The result is, someone can unlock your phone quite easily without you even knowing it has happened.

There are annoyances with Face ID, too, the biggest one being the inability to discreetly check messages at a staff meeting for instance, your phone hidden under the table, due to the interaction that needs to occur with your face rather than your thumb. So, for slightly more screen real estate, we’ve given up one of the most useful functions in prior iPhone versions, the fingerprint scanner, and replaced it with a creepy, half-baked, and ultimately insecure alternative called Face ID. Thanks but no thanks, I say. Consumers buying the iPhone 8 instead of the iPhone X may be saying the same thing.

Solution: Face ID was a nice proof of concept. Now use that technology more appropriately: in home automation products build around the HomePod, and in Apple’s desktop computers, in which the insecure and annoying aspects of Face ID won’t be issues. Revert the iPhone’s design back to the traditional one (thus restoring the home button) with perhaps minor upgrades and improvements.

Problem Two: Marketing / Hype

News about the iPhone X’s redesign was common knowledge a year and a half before it was released — before the iPhone 7 had been released, even — back when the X was still being referred to as the iPhone 8. This lead time gave people who are prone to such things a long time to obsess, and it gave magazines and other technology publications a very long time to write stories about a phone that did not yet exist, and for which no artwork or photography was yet available, thanks to the notoriously tight-lipped Apple.

Stories written for almost all media (other than newspapers and radio), must always include artwork, a corresponding visual element such as a photograph, drawing, diagram, or video that make sense with the piece. The artwork drives the clicks, unfortunately, that’s just the way it is. The problem is, no such artwork existed for this new, theoretical iPhone. When writing stories about the iPhone X, photos of the current existing iPhone can be used only so often. Something different was needed to portray the iPhone X.

Enter graphic artists, industrial designers, fans, bloggers, and vloggers more than happy to help fill this void with their own artwork: theoretical or hypothetical concept drawings meant to showcase their artistic and design abilities and show what iPhones might resemble (and here comes the important qualifier) in the future. Much like Detroit’s computer-modeled designs for concept cars, these drawings weren’t intended to be produced, and probably never could be, they were so divorced from real-world constraints such as size, weight, and what was possible given the current state-of-the-art in technology.

Story editors, though, desperate as they were for iPhone X artwork, were all too eager to publish the concept drawings. The problem is, consumers began to make an association between the fictitious artwork and Apple’s actual phone. The imagery, more appropriate to be associated with a Ridley Scott movie, began to influence consumer expectations about the iPhone X’s design.

Except, instead of the sleek, all-screen iPhone consumers expected, Apple gave us an almost-boxy iPhone that was, at best, mostly-screen. I’m sure I’m not the only consumer to open the otherwise exquisitly-presented iPhone X packaging and upon glimpsing the iPhone X in all its three-dimensional, non-theoretical glory, experienced one primary emotion: disappointment.

Solution: It’s hard to blame Apple for hype when it’s not really their responbility, but would it hurt them to correct clearly erroneous or misleading rumours? Of course not, but the company clearly has a hands-off policy about that, the secrecy only heightening consumers’ anticipation. It’s therefore hard to feel sorry for Apple when the hype gets so heightened that it’s simply not possible for their product to live up to it. But as for information Apple does have a responsibility for: it obviously could stand to market more accurately. That iPhone that was “entirely-screen” that Apple promised us has yet to be delivered after all.

Problem Three: Price

The pricing of the iPhone X (starting at $999 for the 64 GB base model) was a gamble on Apple’s part, but one it was uniquely situated to take part in given its place at the top of the food chain. It’s a factor of contention in the industry, and much groused about by those who would otherwise want to upgrade. Paying a thousand dollars for a mobile phone has a psychological component, since it is crossing a line no one has crossed before, replete with the precedent that sets and the potential ramifications involved.

Expecting a consumer to fork over a thousand dollars for a phone when a compelling alternative exists for $300 (I’m thinking of Google’s Pixel 3) is a big ask. And coming, once again, from the wealthiest company in the world just appears greedy. To not consider how that might turn off consumers is short sighted.

Solution: Discount the price of the iPhone X by 20%, and if this $200 reduction cuts too much into Apple’s margins, ditch the Samsung LED display. Any improvements in brightness compared to the LCD in the 8 and 8 Plus are marginal at best, and not noticeable at all under real-world conditions.

Problem 4: Miscellaneous Design Annoyances

Under the category of no phone is perfect, there are a few annoyances stemming from the iPhone X’s design. Another reviewer may not take issue with my pet peeve, but I’m surprised the Cupertino engineers didn’t catch this one. It has to do with button placement.

Part of the impact of removal of the home button is the fact that the home button was used for more than just going home. When pressed in combination with another buttons, a different function results, such as performing a screen capture by depressing the power and home button.

Maybe it’s just me, but the placement of the three buttons on phone casing — two volume buttons on the left, and a large multi-use button on the right — has led my photo library to be littered with countless pointless screen captures. If your phone is on a flat surface and you pick it up with thumb on the left side of the phone and fingers on the right (and doesn’t everyone pick it up that way?) then you’re going to mistakenly hit the key combination for screen capture almost every time. A relatively minor issue, granted, but it’s one that Apple’s engineers really should have caught. This lack of attention to detail is surprising from the company whose reputation was made from just that kind of attention.

Solution: Reverting to the traditional iPhone design, as last seen in the iPhone 8/8 Plus — yes, replete with home button and bezel, thanks — will correct those design issues originating in the X.

Problem Five: Non-Sensical Versioning

“So, what you’re saying is the iPhone X means it’s the iPhone 10 because the X is a roman numeral. And it was released at the same time as the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Where’s the 9? Oh I see, the 10 really corresponds more to the tenth-anniversary of the iPhone more than a model number. So will the next one be the iPhone 11 or the iPhone XI? Maybe neither, you say? Yeah, I’ve I got it. I think.”

That’s the kind of mental processing that needs to occur to understand Apple’s “logic” in versioning its products. It’s all a bit ridiculous, of course. To be fair, Apple isn’t the only company to employ non-sensical versioning schemes. All companies do it, to one degree or another. Microsoft skipped over the number 9 also (what is it about that number?) when it released Windows 10 in 2015. To distinguish itself from its competor, Apple transformed its own 10 into a roman numeral X, but didn’t that just make things more confusing, and make Apple appear a bit more haughty?

The entire practice of non-sensical versioning schemes is so ostentatious that, really, can’t we be done with that already? The iPhone X was at one point assumed to be the iPhone 8 because that made common sense. Sure, that was a bit of an assumption to make with Apple, whose model numbering of the iPhone from the beginning has defied logic. Still, why not bring that tried-and-true characteristic back: logic. That would be soooo cool in a MMXVIII kind of way.

Solution: Sequential model numbering sounds interesting (and novel, actually). Let’s try that.

Apple headquarters photo by Dan Winters.
Apple iPhone X photo by the author.

Facial recognition clip from Blade Runner: 2049 © 2017 Warner Bros.

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