The brilliance behind Apple's two distinct iPhones

Rob Walker

Not so long ago, I suggested here that the iPhone had become the Polo shirt of gizmos — something that has quasi-luxurious and rarified roots, but that has long since crossed over into the realm of the familiar and commonplace. If that’s true, and the iPhone has become bourgeois, then how could Apple re-polish its iPhone? What could it do win back its luster?

At Apple’s event in Cupertino on Tuesday, we got our answer. Fashion brands and high-end car-makers walk the line between mass appeal and luxury by introducing what amount to sub-brands — differentiating between the couture and the mainstream with a sort of “entry level” variation that appeals to newcomers, but meanwhile protects the feeling of exclusivity around the top-of-the-line version. The idea here is that the top-of-the-line customer will snobbishly shrug off the entry-level customers as buying something so fundamentally different it has no impact on him or her, and that entry-level customers enjoy the hint of exclusivity with the association with the luxury brand.

From what I could tell of Apple hoopla-event, the company has presented a plausible roadmap for pulling off a similar trick with its forthcoming 5s and 5c iPhone models.

The 5c — “unapologetically plastic,” per Apple design czar Jony Ive, and offered in five candy-color variations — came across as fun, young, affordable. You can get a new one for as little as $99 with a two-year contract, the same price you would normally pay for a year-old model.

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Why, then, would you consider a 5s, for at least twice that price? That question was answered several ways, only some of them aesthetic. There’s no question the look (and I’m guessing the feel) of the 5s is distinct from the 5c: Less plastic, and more luxurious, for lack of a better word, with subtle styling and subdued color schemes. (A possible exception is the gold version — or “Champagne” as the company has dubbed it — which strikes me as the one Tony Soprano would choose: It’s the one version that screams “conspicuous consumption.”)

But there was more: Apple supplied an absolute blizzard of technical specs, involving everything from battery life to processor additions to impressive-sounding improvements to the phone’s camera. And finally, there was the one notable whiz-bang addition — instead of protecting your phone with a password, the 5s has a sensor that reads your thumbprint. As a practical matter, I’m not sure this is addressing a need that the marketplace has been screaming for but it sure is super-sci-fi cool, in the way that Siri was, too, when she was first announced. In other words, it’s just the sort of the feature that attracts people who need to feel they are “living in the future,” not settling for the middlebrow devices that satisfy with those with insufficient techno-taste, and are willing to pay extra to get what they perceive as the best.

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We’ll see how all the claims around these specs play out when more people get their hands on the 5s. But for now the idea is to advance, well, the idea of the specs — like convincing suburban commuters that they’re compromising if they don’t insist on four-wheel drive and a fully array of luxury features.

In short, Apple needed to make the 5c sound good, but it really needed to make the 5S sound better — so that the former expands the future iPhone market, rather than cannibalize the existing one. Tuesday’s song-and-dance can’t settle the question of whether the company will pull that off, but it looked to me like a pretty good start.