After 10 years of epic success selling roughly the same luxury good to the world, last year Apple decided to radically reinvent its iPhone with a totally new design, a never-before-seen Face ID system, and a four-figure price tag. The company could have just released its pair of iPhone 8 models and instantly minted a fresh $100 billion in revenue, but it opted to do more than that. The iPhone X is the biggest risk Apple has yet taken with its most important product — the most influential single product in consumer electronics history — and what’s striking to me is how casually we’ve all accepted its success. Apple fans and detractors alike both seem to have taken it for granted that the iPhone X would be as good and as well received as it has been.
Later today, Apple will issue its first quarterly financial report after the iPhone X’s release, and already there are grumblings about disappointing sales relative to Apple’s sky-high expectations. But selling fewer units of a substantially more expensive smartphone was always inevitable with the iPhone X. The effect of the sales Apple has had is more important here. Kantar Worldpanel’s latest data on mobile operating systems suggests that the X model helped Apple increase its share versus Android in some of the world’s biggest markets. Across Europe, the United States, Japan, urban China, and Australia, the iPhone X was one of the top three best-selling phones in December. Consider that this is a device whose starting price outside the US is even higher, starting at $1,400 or more, and it can inch close to $2,000 once all the necessary accessories are factored in.
If you take a cynical view and believe Apple’s business is to peddle extremely high-margin goods to a captive audience of ecosystem-locked suckers, you’re going to have to explain how and why Apple was able to gain market share against Android with this phone. Because the iterative iPhone 8 update — with its big bezels and persistent absence of a headphone jack — hasn’t been any more attractive to Android users than the preceding model. No, the thing that’s attracted outsiders is the iPhone X’s radical new look, capabilities, and, in no small part, the cachet of expensive exclusivity.
But no matter where the iPhone X’s first adopters have come from, the universal thing about them is that they’re all pleased with their purchase. This is the thing that’s different about Apple relative to its competitors in consumer electronics: Apple products consistently receive ridiculously high scores of customer satisfaction, ranking in the high 90s for everything, with the Air Pods setting a new high recently. The data isn’t out yet on the iPhone X, but everything I’ve seen and heard about the experience of owning one has been glowingly positive. I’ll allow the legendary Walt Mossberg to sum up the consumer response to the iPhone X:
As usual, Walt is not alone in his judgment and experience. Everyone I have asked that has purchased an iPhone X has expressed happiness with that decision. No one has been stoked about the price, but after that minor qualifier, all I hear about are the fluid and intuitive gestures to navigate the UI, the gorgeous display, the improved battery life, the futuristic ease of Face ID, and a bunch of other small things that make the user experience a happy one. There’s no getting around this basic fact: the iPhone X is an excellent phone, as judged by the people who use it.
For critics, the iPhone X is vastly overpriced, weird-looking thanks to its prominent screen notch, and profoundly impractical with its glass back and lack of a headphone jack or expandable storage. Many also take issue with Apple’s removal of the fingerprint-sensing Touch ID authentication system that had worked well for years. I don’t consider any of those to be invalid complaints — they all have some truth to them when articulated in a simple head-to-head spec comparison against a competing device like Samsung’s Galaxy S8. But the thing with the iPhone X is that these apparently substantial downsides tend to melt away the longer you use the phone. I know this, because I’ve tested the phone extensively, and while I still favor Google’s Pixel 2 XL for its superior camera, I can totally see myself making the necessary adaptations to live happily with an iPhone X as well. You just have to get used to avoiding Face ID’s few weak spots, buy a pair of wireless headphones, and acquire a fancy leather case for it.
Apple knows its customers well. The company is confident that they’ll show trust in its design decisions and go the extra mile to adapt. This redesigned iPhone isn’t being released onto a blank canvas where we can weigh its features and specs in any sort of empirical fashion. There’s no “all other things being equal” comparison for a new iPhone, because all the other things are never equal.
The reason why the iPhone X is broadly underrated and questioned by those who haven’t used it is that they’re treating it like just another phone. But the people who buy an iPhone aren’t really buying just another phone, they’re buying the iPhone experience. They’re buying connectivity to all of their friends and family already on iMessage. They’re getting the familiar relationship of trust with Apple that means they’ll have regular software updates and a generous device repair and replacement program should they encounter an issue. Apple’s holistic approach to selling a phone is fundamental to the deep loyalty it enjoys from existing users, and it’s the thing that makes those of us on Android devices look on in envy.
A year after the company’s marketing chief made the infamous “courage” comment about ditching the headphone jack, I think Apple showed genuine courage in going with the huge redesign that the iPhone X represents. The company got rid of its signature home button, but replaced it with a better gestural interface. It swapped metal with glass, added wireless charging, took away the fingerprint reader, and stuck a big old notch atop the device like a cake-topping cherry. These changes all take a lot of conviction with any product, but they’re especially daring with something as closely scrutinized as the iPhone.
The absence of outrage and complaint about the iPhone X, especially in our present era where taking offense seems like the best way to be heard, is in itself a huge accomplishment for Apple. The iPhone X isn’t a perfect phone, but so far it seems to be leaving its mark with a lot of perfectly happy users.