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Apple needs to court gamers with the iPhone

The company is clearly proud of the power of the iPhone 5; so why ignore the apps which can show that off best?

New Statesman
A screenshot from iOS game Super Hexagon.

It's been a few weeks since Apple revealed iOS 7 at WWDC. The aesthetic judgements appear to be largely a matter of taste, and previews suggest that the new features are pretty useful, so it's time to look a bit deeper. Two takes, from Marco Arment and Allen Pike, suggest one crucial motivation behind the redesign: decommodifying the operating system.

Pike writes:

iOS 7 was clearly designed to show off what’s possible in 2013. As a side effect, they’ve embraced conventions that will be hard to emulate with commodity hardware or web tech.

The hairlines and flourescent colours are trendy and easy to copy. On the other hand, bringing to life these blurs, animations, and dynamics with HTML and JavaScript isn’t yet possible. You need the latest hardware and the most efficient software to make something feel like this. Further, you need thoughtful APIs so developers can take it to its full potential. In short, the browser vendors have their work cut out for them.

Even with tuned native software, the iPhone 4′s A4 chip can’t handle the most interesting aspects of iOS 7. The 3D, the blur, the compositing – all of them are disabled or degraded on the A4. iOS 7 is designed and developed for the A5, and will truly shine on the A7.

Arment adds:

iOS 7’s appearance and dynamics require a powerful GPU and advanced, finely tuned, fully hardware-accelerated graphics and animation APIs. This will hurt web imitators most, but it’s also going to be problematic for Android: while high-end Android phones have mostly caught up in GPU performance, and recent Android versions have improved UI acceleration, most Android devices sold are neither high-end nor up-to-date. The gap is much wider in tablets, and even “high-end” tablets usually have insufficient GPU power to drive their high-DPI screens.

In other words, the fact that iOS 7 requires all the power of an iPhone 5 to get its shiny designs across is likely to be a feature, not a bug, of the operating system. If the interface takes off (which is, admittedly, an open question at this point) then it will be tricky indeed for other companies to copy it. The very DNA of its design calls for a hardware quality which commodity Android phones won't be able to handle for some years to come. That won't stop competitors trying; but it will make it much harder to pass off low powered smartphones as though they're just as good as the top-end.

Apple, with its yearly upgrade cycle and relentless pursuit of that top-end of the market, appears to have realised that it's now in the enviable position of having a userbase installed with the highest powered hardware on the market. And now it's acting on that lead.

But there's another way the company could use the power of the iPhone 5 in a way which connects more directly with users: double-down on its lead in the mobile gaming space.

The company barely speaks about it, and shows little obvious sign of being interested at all, but the iPhone is one of the biggest gaming devices in the world. 77.2m Xbox 360s have been sold over the console's life; Apple sold 48m iPhones just over Christmas last year. And while it's hard to define just how many of those are used as gaming devices – there's clearly a spectrum ranging from someone paying £13 to play XCOM at one end to someone with the free version of Words With Friends at the other – it's fair to say that the company is a big player.

But, aside from the woefully neglected Game Centre, Apple's attempt to put together a game-centric social network, it's basically ignored that lead. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" surely applies here: the company is earning millions from its cut of the App Store sales, and is likely to be selling a few more phones from the free advertising alone.

At the same time, though, if it wants to make the most of its hardware advantage, it could do so much more. Developers complain that the layout of the App Store (and particularly the dominance of the "most sold" charts) encourages free and free-to-play apps at the expense of ones with a more traditional revenue model; Game Centre is still not up to snuff for all but the most basic multiplayer games; and the fact that deleting apps from a phone deletes saves as well means that users are wary to download large games.

There's a real chance that Apple could tackle Nintendo or Sony in the portable gaming space without even breaking a sweat; and doing so would have handy knock-on effects for its own business. But it has to try a little, or all it has to offer is wasted potential.

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