Death To Tech Specs

The days of talking about bits and gigahertz and cache size and RAM capacity are long over, say industry insiders. Here's how Apple's mobile devices changed the conversation.

Reviewing Apple products can be a daunting task—not because they're too complicated and nuanced to explain but because it's hard not to use slobbering superlatives. To wit: This week, reviews of the iPhone 5s and 5c were brimming with praise: Critics described the phones' polished and delightful experience, calling the 5s the "fastest" and "most advanced" and "most game-changing" iteration to date, "the best smartphone on the market [made] even better."

The devices are, indeed, superb. That hasn't changed for a while now. What's shifted since Apple entered the mobile market is how critics talk about devices. It wasn't that long ago that gigahertz and RAM capacity and L2 cache size and other tech jargon were top of mind for reviewers. And though such intricately detailed write-ups still crop up, most have skewed away from wonky, technical specifications and toward more experience-based product understandings.

The shift serves to show not only how companies like Apple create and market their products in a way that changes the conversation. It also shows how critics and consumers now receive them. The public's taste has improved over the years, and so too has its discourse. It's why we're seeing mainstream media outlets such as ABC talk about interaction and user interface design in relation to iOS 7, even name checking Jony Ive. And it's why publications ranging from Time to USA Today even took time to explain the high-level concept of skeuomorphism in their reviews.

A decade ago, during the golden age of the PC, computer components were supremely important. Consumers cared then about having a 2.30 GHz Intel Pentium processor with 1M cache and 800 MHz front-side bus—and thus companies and critics cared about them, or vice versa. But that's no longer the case. "[Buyers] are certainly thinking less about what's inside," says Colette LaForce, the chief marketing officer of AMD. "When you look at the success of companies like Apple, the reality is that when you build such a strong brand around the end-user device, and users come to know the experience as being of a certain caliber, then they are loyal to that brand. The speeds and feeds and performance are far less important than the experience they're going to get."

When it came to describing the new high-end iPhone's chip speed, David Pogue of the New York Times breezed right by it. "Nobody was exactly complaining about the iPhone’s speed before, but, sure, it’s plenty quick," he said, before calling it and its M7 motion coprocessor "fairly invisible changes." Apple might've spent time boasting of the device's 64-bit architecture to the press, but that's not what will resonate with the public. As my colleague Farhad Manjoo tweeted recently, "Phone companies talking about 64 bits is a marketing error. It's as meaningless a term for users as you can find. Stop."

LaForce agrees with that sentiment. "What's important is them knowing they can do better video streaming or play more games," she says. "We have to tap into the emotions of those experiences, as opposed to just focusing on, Here's my list of specs, and this is the other guy's list of specs. I believe those days are over."

In other words, consumers essentially want to know that the experience is better and faster (and perhaps that it has some whiz-bang features like Siri or fingerprint scanning or new colors). No need to bother the majority of them with the wonky details. That's partly why it's a mistake for Nokia to so heavily market its 41-megapixel camera. It's not worth getting into a pissing match over which phone has the bigger megapixel size. Yes, consumers want to know that their phone takes the most gorgeous pictures. But while the difference between a 41-megapixel camera and a 13-megapixel one is substantial, to them, it's not tangible.

Apple's design guru Jony Ive and software SVP Craig Federighi echoed this idea in an interview this week. "Look at the camera space, companies are chasing megapixels . . . My family cares about taking a good picture, not a megapixel count," explained Federighi. "We carry that through to all the decisions we make about our phone. What experience is it going to deliver? Not what number will it allow us to put on a spec sheet."

Added Ive, "That is exactly it. It's just easier to talk about product attributes that you can measure with a number. Focus on price, screen size—that's easy. But there's a more difficult path, and that's to make better products, ones where maybe you can't measure their value empirically."

Qualcomm SVP Rob Chandhok feels the change has been a long time coming. "It's not a nerd device anymore, and the conversation is starting to change," he says. "There's a place where the consumer no longer cares about the technical specifications because it's good enough, and what dominates is user experience. Personally, I think we're there now, or we're at the tail end of fighting that war."

Still, Chandhok clarifies, some specs remain important. Battery life, for one, is a bottom-line concern for many. "The tech heads will say, Wow, I can do this AnTuTu benchmark with a slightly higher score, but if you give it to [an average consumer] and say, I can give you a higher AnTuTu score, but your phone will last four hours less, they'll be, like, I don't care—I don't want my battery to die." (Chandhok also points out that preferences vary by market. Chinese customers, for example, very much care about having quad-core processors versus dual-core processors, he says.)

But for the majority of consumers, tech spec terms like gigahertz are no longer necessary. It used to be common to see such terms promoted on the front of product cases in stores. But now they're more likely reserved for those interested in the fine print on the back.

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  • Michael Elling

    Since when does polished = rounded?  I love hearing the rave reviews about 5c.  It's so smooth and silky.  Duh!  Maybe because Apple copied Samsung and the edges are rounded and it doesn't hurt the hand to hold?  But watch out fan people, you're gonna drop that device more!  Actually you won't because there is less snagging.  Oh touch!  This is so complicated!  Let's just go back to paper.  The only value this article had was that it had none.

  • Renato Murakami

    Oh my, Apple is so future thinking for discarding specs and talking about experience - let's hear the next Apple fanboy say this. Nothing against Apple fans though, I'm one when it comes to tablets.

    I mean, c'mon. There's nothing new in that, smartphone companies has been doing that for a while now.
    And if he was trying to dismiss Nokia's Lumia line with that bs, it's not working.
    Yes, 41Mpx. But if you watch any ad about Lumia 1020, it's all about the experience.
    The one ad that convinced me to buy a Nokia 808 late last year was one showing a video recording of a garage band, displaying both the quality of video recording and sound recording. And it really is all that, I've confirmed it, even though Nokia never bragged about the quality of sound capture, which is pretty impressive.
    So randomly selecting specs that matter for your brand while discarding those that doesn't sounds kinda convenient, doesn't it retina display pixel density 326ppi folks? 
    Here's the thing about tech specs: it's not random numbers, it's a way to measure a device against another in certain terms. Also a way to show that there has indeed been improvements from one version of the product to another that makes it worth considering the upgrade. No marketing bullshit.
    As much as people will whine, there's a certain reason why, for instance, Nokia 1020 has a 41Mpx camera and talks about it. I'll admit that it can be misleading to some (because of course it won't take pics like a medium format camera and you are stupid if you thought it would), but all Nokia 1020 ads seems to explain that: it's for the zoom thing. It really is how many megapixels the sensor can process at a time, but that doesn't guarantee the same quality of a professional camera. Should they omit that information? Nope. Just as much as iPhone 5S can't omit the fact that it's camera does slow motion.
    Of course, tech specs alone means nothing without a good experience with the device, but selling the device without talking about tech specs is preaching to the crowd. It might work for fanboys and people who only cares about brands, but please don't underestimate all your clientele.

  • Jacob

    *Now* you harp on Nokia for getting technical about the iPhone-beating camera? Where were you last year when Nokia was all about better UX for a lower price?

  • Jacob

    For the record, Austin tweeted back to me, sharing his review of the Lumia 920 last year.

  • Jonathon Robert Cowley

    So instead of giving us information about a product, reviewers are now giving us marketing bullshit instead; and you think that's a good thing?