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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Underestimating Apple’s bold moves

Tim Cook - Apple photo

I’m not sure how you can underestimate one of the world’s most successful companies, but somehow we managed to do it with Apple regarding Wednesday’s “Far Out” event.

Take the Apple Watch Ultra: Back in July, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman reported that Apple would be making an extreme-sports watch.

Gurman’s report got a lot of details right, and yet over the intervening two months, I think a lot of people (myself included) tried to stuff the narrative of this watch into the existing Apple narrative. And so that “extreme sports watch” got watered down until the general expectation was that Apple would probably just unveil a larger, more expensive Apple Watch.

That’s not what happened. Instead, Apple embraced the extreme-sports narrative. Sure, a lot—maybe even most!—people who buy an Apple Watch Ultra will not be using it in extreme sports. It’s the biggest and best and most expensive Apple Watch, and there’s always an aspirational quality to a product like that. But Apple is not shying away from the lucrative sports watch category, nor should it.

Fitness has been a fundamental part of the Apple Watch story from the beginning, so this extension of the brand feels right. It’s hard not to imagine Apple being a huge threat to the entrenched leader in the category, Garmin—so long as Apple remains focused. If Apple moves ahead halfheartedly or distractedly, it will have a harder time because the category means more to Garmin’s bottom line than Apple’s.

Then there’s the matter of iPhone pricing. With higher inflation, a strong dollar, and reports of Apple expecting to dramatically improve the average selling price of iPhones during this cycle, all signs pointed to Apple raising prices on at least some iPhone models. It didn’t happen—at least in the United States—and that was a pleasant surprise.

Of course, Apple did raise prices almost everywhere else in the world, which is unsurprising given the strength of the dollar. But while it could have probably raised prices on the iPhone Pro models pretty easily, it refrained. An Apple motivated entirely by hardware sales might have made a different decision, but as Ben Thompson points out, this is an Apple that’s also interested in selling services and ancillary products to its installed base. The lack of a U.S. price increase—which, given inflation, is essentially a price cut!—says a lot about the strategy of today’s Apple.

Landfall on Dynamic Island

Alan Dye - Apple
Alan Dye introduces the Dynamic Island.

Which brings us to the Dynamic Island, a stark reminder about the limits of rumors emerging from Apple’s hardware supply chain. Everyone who reported on the size and shape of the new cutouts on the iPhone 14 Pro models was absolutely right—and yet couldn’t see the forest for the trees. The cutouts were only the start of the story.

Leaks from inside Cupertino are a lot harder to come by. And so we missed the bigger picture, which is that Apple took the reduced size of its sensor cutouts as an opportunity to redesign a big portion of the iOS interface. (Remember, it’s been five years since the iPhone X introduced the stable peninsula that we call the notch. That was the first cut at this sort of interface; the company’s had half a decade to think about its next move.)

With the presence of a strong hardware rumor and no software rumors at all, everyone did the rational thing and stuck to the concrete. It would have been very hard to predict that Apple was going to create a rounded interface element that dances around the cutouts and turns them from a blemish on an OLED screen into an ambient information zone.

And yet, having seen it, the whole thing immediately made sense to me. Think of how Apple characterizes the iPhone in the simplest possible silhouettes:

An iPhone 14 Pro with Dynamic Island, iPhone 14 with notch, and iPhone SE with a home button and large bezels at top and bottom.

The early iPhones were defined by their large bezels at top and bottom, with a home button at the bottom. With the introduction of the iPhone X, the fundamental silhouette of the iPhone shifted. Apple embraced the notch. It wasn’t a blemish, but an identifying feature that represented the iPhone brand.

With the introduction of the iPhone 14 Pro, we’re entering a new era with a new silhouette. The new iPhones are defined by the floating Dynamic Island, and unlike the notch (which was basically treated like a blind spot you’d eventually forget was there) the Dynamic Island is meant to be noticed.

I don’t really know if the Dynamic Island will be a hit or a misfire. A few minutes playing around with it in Cupertino aren’t enough to tell me, one way or another. But its existence should be a reminder that with Apple, the details of the hardware are often just the beginning of the story. We underestimate Apple at our peril.

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