With the unveiling on the iPad 2, Apple made it clear that they were not concerned with technical parity against their competitors.
This is worth repeating. It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough. It’s tech married with the liberal arts and the humanities. Nowhere is that more true than in the post-PC products. Our competitors are looking at this like it’s the next PC market. That is not the right approach to this. These are pos-PC devices that need to be easier to use than a PC, more intuitive…. The hardware and software need to intertwine more than they do on a PC. We think we’re on the right path with this. – Steve Jobs
While the iPad is for all intents and purposes technically comparable against the latest and greatest from Motorola and other emerging tablet manufacturers, we can’t really be sure. Ideally, this shouldn’t matter. What hardware the tablet uses should be secondary to the experience of the software and hardware meshing together. Ideally. In reality its good to have specs fleshed out for our devices. Not just to satiate techie desires, but because analysts and pundits and even prospective developers should know what they are dealing with in its entirety. I mean, it’s not going to be hard to peg the iPad 2’s specs, that will happen pretty quickly after the release. But why does Apple play this game of cat and mouse with us? Lauding the supposed power of the A5 chip but shrouding its exact abilities in secrecy? It’s contradictory and obnoxious. It is interesting that Apple is only now explicitly stating their depreciation of technical specifications in their mobile products. While they continue to update products to meet their competition, with each revision we know less and less about the devices’ abilities. The original iPhone made its specifications well-known on Apple’s product page, including processor type and clock speed (ARM11 at 412Mhz), RAM amount (128MB), and GPU type (PowerVR MBX Lite). The iPhone 3G retained these specifications with the addition of a 3G radio.
When Apple revealed the iPhone 3GS however, the technical specifications on their page were less in-depth. No mention was made of the processor type (though a Cortex-A8 was soon pegged as the culprit) but clock speed was mentioned as 600Mhz. RAM is given at 256MB (only because the company explicitly says that it is double the original iPhone) and the GPU model is never given a type, but only mentioned to handle OpenGL ES 2.0, meaning it had to be an SGX500-series (soon confirmed as an SGX535).
The iPhone 4 has obscured technical information even further. Little is given to the phone’s processing capability beyond knowing it is the A4 SoC. Nothing is mentioned for clock speed, GPU or RAM. Yet of course, we have discovered the answer to all these things (Cortex-A8 at ~800Mhz, 512MB, and the SGX535 linked to a faster bus). This is notable for being even less divulged information than the equally equipped iPad, released earlier in 2010. At least in that spec page Apple mentions the clock speed at 1Ghz. Yet the iPad 2 lacks any information beyond the dual core nature of the A5 and remarking to its advanced graphics (though mentioning nothing else).
The problem with this philosophical refusal to divulge specifications in Apple’s mobile products is that it is a game of futility. Tech insiders want to know what their products are capable of and will know in short time. All one has to do is wait for the inevitable iFixit report that will answer all our questions. So while Apple doesn’t have to carry on about their specs in their keynotes, they should at least make it available on a spec page somewhere on their website. Further more, Apple is inadvertently casting doubt on the technical parity of their systems, unnecessarily. The company makes their products seem weaker than they actually are because what company would openly admit they make a weaker product? It leads to rampant speculation that is often unfounded (like the current hypothesis from ArsTechnica that the A5 uses dual Cortex A8s instead of the obvious A9 configuration). All of this, from the speculation to lack of confidence leads to what I call the “Nintendo Effect”.
See, Nintendo started doing this as well with the Wii – depreciating the need for technical information (and indeed technical parity with its competitors) in a time when it matters more than ever. Nintendo falsely prophesied that the technical arms race was coming to a close in the game world. I say “falsely” because in reality this generation of games has seen the greatest leap forward in graphics and software complexity probably since the advent of 3D graphics. Yet Nintendo saw fit to bow out of that competition. We knew the Wii would not be a powerful device, but we still – almost 5 years later – know little about the console’s technical specifications. The numbers we have now have never been confirmed nor precisely measured and are at best approximations. As a member of a rabid Nintendo forum in my younger days, I can say the debate to the Wii’s technical proficiency still wages.
Not only does debate continue, but doubt shrouds the home console. Being vastly weaker than its competition has been a mocking point of Nintendo haters and developers who are unwilling to shoehorn their larger games for the system. As Nintendo refused to release the Wii’s exact specifications beyond acknowledging its lineage in the Gamecube (a console that I should mention has all of its specs completely known) they have transferred this philosophy of ignorance to their handhelds. The DS had all of its specs fully available to the general public, from processor type to clockspeed to RAM and GPU. Even the DSi made clear its enhancements over the DS in quantifiable numbers. Yet the 3DS, for all the yearning we have to know what drives its 3D display, is relatively scant on specifications. Yes, the GPU is confirmed to be the DMP Pica200, but that was divulged by DMP themselves. RAM, processor, or clockspeed remains a mystery (though a speculative list is offered). Even if those rumored specs remain true, it only shows Nintendo’s frustrating inability to modernize: sticking with ancient processors on the Wii and using distinctly last-generation parts on the 3DS.
Philosophy becomes action becomes fear.
Apple risks becoming the Nintendo of the mobile phone industry. As they continue to depreciate the importance of specifications, they risk becoming lazy in the execution of their hardware. At a point where the tablet and smartphone markets are rocketing so quickly towards the level needed to meet all consumer demands, Apple cannot risk being left behind. They cannot risk another ISA crisis like the 68k or PowerPC days when their hardware was consistently behind the competition. So in the end, Apple needs to strike a balance. Yes, it is about the total experience and lauding technical specifications above the actual experience of using a device is a major pitfall by Apple’s competitors. However, Apple cannot forget that in these early days of true mobile computing, specifications are going to matter for a while longer. Don’t be coy about specs.