News analysis

Original iPhone may explain X's crazy price

When the very first iPhone was released in 2007, it was - among other things - nearly impossible to buy. At launch, the phone worked with a single American telco, AT&T, and was priced at US$599 - making it among the most expensive phones available.

Someone in Singapore who wanted one thus had to somehow get it from the United States and then undertake the finicky process of "jail-breaking" it to work with local carriers, or pay upwards of $1,000 to unauthorised resellers selling already-hacked phones.

And yet, it did not seem to put buyers off. While the phone certainly did not penetrate the mainstream market until local carriers started to sell it, many Singaporeans were willing to pay the premium and go through the hassle of hacking to have one.

The phone seemed to have a certain aura around it, and the hoops people had to jump through to get one appeared to only feed that feeling of exclusivity.

Today, 10 years later, that aura and exclusivity are gone. Apple is not the hip underdog any more; it is the dominant behemoth flogging the world's best-selling phone. In the last three months alone - even with the looming launch of a new phone - it sold 41 million iPhones.

And it is within this context that the iPhone X, unveiled on Tuesday, should be seen. The iPhone X looks very much like an attempt to recapture some of the spirit surrounding the original.

This phone appears designed to alienate the mass market, to make people baulk and to try and give Apple some of its controversial edge back. It is probably safe to expect that production runs will be more limited and the phone, even when released, will likely be difficult to come by.

 

Otherwise, not very much about the phone makes sense.

The price makes it comfortably the most expensive handset in the market (I'm disregarding the niche Vertu phones). When available in November, it will cost upwards of $1,648 without a contract.

That is $600 more than the $1,048 launch price of the iPhone 7 and one of the largest price increases seen in recent years. The iPhone 7 cost the same as the iPhone 6s, and was only $50 more expensive than the iPhone 6.

At a time when the likes of OnePlus , Motorola, Huawei and Oppo seem to be getting better at cramming higher-end components into reasonably priced phones, Apple's pricing strategy seems extravagant. It is also difficult to argue that the near 60 per cent price jump of the iPhone X can be put down to new features.

So many of the improvements - a bigger screen, better camera, faster processor, wireless charging - are either expected upgrades or Apple playing catch-up.

The one exciting new thing is an array of face-recognition cameras and sensors that allow you to unlock your phone just by looking at it, even in the dark, and also allow you to create an animated emoji that mimics your facial expressions. A demo I've seen online features a presenter creating a message where a poo emoji is doing the talking. While fun, we are still talking about a killer feature that amounts to the ability to animate poo.

And then there is the fact that Apple released two other phones, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, together with the X - seemingly rendering two new iPhones obsolete more or less immediately.

In fact, the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are the true sequels to the iPhone 7 models. The iPhone X is not.

It is instead a shout-out to fans who may have been unsettled by Apple's seeming loss of its mojo. This phone appears designed to alienate the mass market, to make people baulk and to try and give Apple some of its controversial edge back. It is probably safe to expect that production runs will be more limited and the phone, even when released, will likely be difficult to come by. This is Apple design jiu-jitsu at its finest: an iPhone meant to put people off, and so, many people will find it irresistible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2017, with the headline 'Original iPhone may explain X's crazy price'. Print Edition | Subscribe