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?

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.

A screenshot from iOS game Super Hexagon.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear