Why the good enough iPhone 8 might be a much better buy than the great iPhone X
The new phone is 'futuristic', Tim Cook says. Apple's history shows that's not always a good thing
When Apple gathered the world to look at its new phone, something went wrong. It was fixed immediately, but in the briefest, most awkward moment, it might have showed exactly why you want to buy its most boring phone.
As Craig Federighi came to the stage to demonstrate the facial recognition that is the headline feature of the new, premium – and very expensive – iPhone X, it seemed to fail him.
“Unlocking it is as easy as looking at it and swiping up," he said, swiping at the phone. But nothing happened; the facial recognition wasn't letting him in.
Explanations range from the fact that the demo hadn't been set up properly to the idea that the technology isn't ready and won't work for users. It's probably the former, given that when Mr Federighi swapped to a different phone everything started working.
But that doesn't really matter, because the keynote was the perfect summation of the difference between the two phones. The iPhone 8's introduction wasn't as flashy – it didn't involve any hands-on demonstration – but it also went without a single hitch.
The iPhone 8 is, for reasons outlined here before, a fairly boring phone. But it's boring because we've seen it before, and that's an advantage: you already know that it works, because it's basically an improved version of the design Apple has used for the last three years, in the iPhone 6, 6s and 7.
There's a now established truism that, given most people change their phone every two years, the really sensible people wait until the "s" year. Those models might not look so flashy but come packed with more modest, important improvements. Apple spends the time not on taking risks with its design but improving speed and adding less flashy features.
The iPhone 8 doesn't have the "s" name, but it's really an iPhone 7s. In fact, it's more like an iPhone 6sss, given that basic phone has been through so many revisions and improvements.
The iPhone X, by comparison, couldn't be any less of a "s" phone. Everything in it is new; it's all very exciting, and also very prone to breaking. Being new, and being first, hasn't always been a very good approach for Apple customers.
The first iPhone, for instance, was astounding. You only need to watch back Steve Jobs' introduction to realise quite what a profoundly incredible piece of work it was. But it also launched without an App Store, the feature that would become as big as the phone itself.
The first iPad made all of that bigger, creating an entirely new category of device. Apple didn't seem to realise, though, that the use of that depended on it being light and fast, and it took a year until the speed and weigh became comfortable enough to lounge around with.
The first Apple Watch was a stunning piece of work: a computer smaller than people could have imagined, packed into a tiny body that goes on your wrist. Except it ran incredibly slow, and the interface was confusing. It took until the second Apple Watch and a major update to the operating system for everything to work properly.
(You get the picture.)
Apple isn't alone in any of this. In fact, its first try is usually better than everyone else's second. But Apple's second try is usually better than anyone else can even imagine.
All of that said, you already know if you're going to buy an iPhone X; it's a phone squarely focused at the kind of people who come to Apple products with a lot of money and enthusiasm, and no patience. Apple knows this, and that's why launching two phones at once – one of which is easily its most expensive ever – wasn't any kind of risk, despite what people want you to think.
But if you don't have time or money to spare, then you can pick up the iPhone 8, a lot cheaper and a lot sooner.
Because the iPhone 8 might not be a great phone, and it might be a bit boring. But a decent, boring phone that works is infinitely better than a phone from the future that doesn't actually let you use it.