TIME Companies

The Biggest Misconception About Apple

Apple Unveils iPhone 6
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California.

The company isn't innovative — it's iterative

To the average tech enthusiast, Apple might look like the face of innovation. After all, the company developed some of the world’s most well-known personal computers. It disrupted the entire music industry. It pushed the mobile phone business ahead by five years.

But here’s the thing: on a month-to-month basis, Apple really isn’t all that innovative.

Instead, the company is tremendously iterative—which is a fancy way of saying that they’re good at making steady, small improvements over time.

Consider its biggest hit, the iPhone, which has remained remarkably similar since its introduction in 2007. Eight years later, the home screen looks nearly identical, with its familiar grid of colorful icons and rounded corners. Sure, the design aesthetic has evolved a bit (now flatter and brighter), and the screen size has increased slightly (once in 2010 and again in 2014).

But compare that to the kaleidoscope of colors, sizes and designs among Android phones, with a mix of six-inch phablets, bending displays and dual-screen experiments.

Beyond smartphones, you can see this same iterative philosophy by comparing Apple’s product releases to those of Google or Microsoft. Since 2007, Apple has released just one new major product line (the iPad), and has one more on the way (the Apple Watch). In that same time period, Google has released Chrome (2008), Android (2008), Fiber (2011) Glass (2013), the Nexus devices, a cloud-based computer (the Chromebook), and an alpha-stage driverless car, just to name a few.

The story is similar for Microsoft, with a search engine (Bing, 2009), a motion-based video game accessory (Kinect, 2010), a whole new video game console (Xbox One, 2013), a fitness band, three versions of the Microsoft Surface tablet, and just recently, a virtual reality headset (the HoloLens).

When you compare the three companies purely on volume of new product lines after 2007, Apple looks unproductive and uncreative. Where is the long-rumored Apple television? Why hasn’t Apple announced a driverless car?

The answer is focus and iteration. The iPhone isn’t the world’s best-selling phone because of one or two headline-grabbing features (see LG’s curved screen or Samsung’s “smart scroll eye tracking”). It’s the world’s best-selling phone because Apple has spent eight years refining the device, gradually making it thinner, simpler and more polished, year after year after year. The proof is in the earnings report pudding, where Apple rode its latest iPhone to the most profitable quarter of any company ever. For perspective, that $18 billion Apple pocketed last quarter is more than Southwest Airlines, Hyundai USA, or Sprint makes in revenue per year.

Compare the iPhone and its success to the above list of ‘innovative’ products released by Google and Microsoft over the last eight years. Of the 13 products I mentioned by name, how many have become hits? Chrome and Android each probably deserve that title, but just about every other has ranged only from “somewhat successful” (ex: the Xbox One) to “mostly a flop” (ex: Google Glass).

This isn’t to say there’s something wrong with lots of new products or constant attempts at innovation. If you have billions in the bank and the luxury of experimentation, why not be a little crazy from time to time? Google’s driverless cars are cool, and may eventually pave the way for safer freeways and more reliable transportation. Microsoft’s new HoloLens might so far be unproven, but the product has an impressive, admirable vision.

That said, note that both Google and Microsoft make the lion’s share of their profits with one product each: Search (for Google) and Office (for Microsoft). These two products are the reason we even got Google Glass or the fitness-tracking Microsoft Band. And crucially, Search and Office were developed over the course of a decade, on the strength of focus and iteration, just like the iPhone.

So as the luster of Apple’s latest earnings report fades, and we hear the inevitable criticisms of the upcoming Apple Watch, let’s keep things in perspective. The primary question for Apple (and Google and Microsoft, for that matter) is not “how many revolutionary new products can they produce?” but rather, “how will they iterate on the products that exist today?” Sure, I’m curious to see whether Microsoft can one day turn my living room into an interactive, three-dimensional hologram. But for now, I’m far more interested to see how Apple can refine the smartphone experience, or how Google can make Search even better than it is today. Three cheers for iteration.

TIME Smartphones

Why You Should Never Sign a Cell Phone Contract Again

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

You can save money by opting for a month-to-month plan instead

Like rocket science and high school relationships, cell phone plans are complicated for a reason. Two-year contract or early-upgrade plan? Month-to-month or pay-as-you-go? Individual or shared data?

Big carriers like AT&T and Verizon love it this way — they know most consumers won’t know a good plan from a bad one. When every choice is filled with exceptions, limitations and fine print, how can you even begin to compare your options? You’d be a fool to even try.

Well, call us fools, because we sat down and did just that. In order to keep things straightforward, we made a few assumptions up front:

1. You want a recent premium phone, not a clunker. We’re talking iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S6.

2. You want about 2-3 GBs of data per month—enough to use GPS, browse the web, and check email on a regular basis.

3. You don’t want to worry about how many messages you’ve sent, so the plan needs to allow for unlimited texts as well.

Just by making these assumptions, the options—and the math—get a lot simpler. Yes, you can certainly save even more if you optimize your exact number of texts, minutes and data with a pay-as-you-go plan, but who wants to think that hard about their cellular service? So long as you just want a decent plan on a good phone, we’ve got you covered.

The four options, from worst to first

When it comes down to it, there are roughly four types of cell plans. We’ll order them from worst to first here, then break it down below.

4) a payment plan, like AT&T’s Next or Verizon’s Edge
3) a two-year contract
2) a pay-as-you-go plan
1) a month-to-month plan (requires an unlocked phone with no contract)

The payment plan: A wolf in sheep’s clothing

If you’re just looking for an individual plan, the first option is arguably the worst. The way the plan works: you pay $0 the day you get your new phone, but then you pay about $20 on top of your normal monthly fee in roughly 30 installments (the exact rate and number of installments vary by plan, but the overall concept is very similar). After 30 months of payments, you end up paying about $50 more under this method than if you had selected a two-year contract.

That said, the payment plans allow you to trade in your phone early for a new one—typically at the 12-, 18-, or 24-month mark, depending on which option you choose. On paper, this makes the payment plan a cheaper option than the two-year contract—by our calculations, you save about $40 compared to a two-year contract if you trade in at the 24-month mark.

But all of this ignores one key wildcard: the resale value of your phone. A top-shelf phone like the iPhone 6 can potentially net you $400 after one year, or around $300 after two years, using a site like eBay or Gazelle. Once you factor in the resale value of your phone, the payment plan option is simply the worst way to go, whatever way you slice it. It’s no wonder the phone companies are pushing these the hardest.

The two-year contract: Still subsidized, still a bad deal

The two-year contract lets you buy an expensive phone (say, the $649 iPhone 6) for a seemingly inexpensive, subsidized price ($199). Naturally, however, the cost of the phone is baked into your monthly fee, and by the time two years have passed, you’ve paid the full price for the device.

These plans have become a moderately bad choice for several reasons. First, there’s the $40 “activation fee” ($35 on Verizon), which is probably the single most unfair, ridiculous charge in the entire business. When AT&T or Verizon advertises a new phone for $200, what they really mean is $235-$240. They’re just hiding 15% of the cost in the fine print.

Each time you buy a premium phone under a two-year contract, you’ll end up paying nearly $2,200, all told, by the end of the two years. But hey, at least you’ll be able resell your old phone when you’re done. You can’t say that about the payment plan method.

The pay-as-you-go plan: Best for the micromanager, complicated for everyone else

If you’re disciplined, data-driven, responsible and self-restrained, the pay-as-you-go option is your best bet. With these plans, you can pay only for the exact amount of data, texts and minutes you use. For example, you might be a data fiend—constantly using GPS or watching videos on the move—but totally disinterested in actually talking on the phone. You can pay for one, practically ignore the other, and pocket all the cash you saved.

The problem is that all the rules and fees vary significantly from one plan to the next. One company might charge you by the day, another by the minute, and a third for any month in which you make a call. Even once you’ve selected your specific plan, you’ll likely need to monitor yourself and your phone habits. Got an hour-long emergency call from your parents? Received a flurry of unwanted text messages out of the blue? Pay-as-you-go plans add up quickly if you deviate from the original structure you set, so proceed carefully.

Month-to-month, no contract plan: For once, a fair deal

In many ways, the month-to-month approach is the best of all worlds. You can still get unlimited texts and minutes. You can still enjoy several GBs of data. You’re not locked into any long-term agreements, and you can switch carriers as you see fit. The only downside? You have to pay the full price of the phone on day one—which can be $600+ for the latest and greatest models. But if you can stomach the initial setback, you can save more than $400 over two years.

As an example, compare AT&T’s two-year contract plan (2 GBs, unlimited texts and minutes) to Cricket Wireless’ month-to-month plan (3 GBs, unlimited text and minutes). Let’s assume you’re buying a 16GB iPhone 6.

As of this writing, AT&T’s plan will cost you $80 per month for two years. You’ll be hit with a $40 ‘activation fee’ when you buy, and you’ll still need to pay the subsidized cost of the phone: $199. Add it all up, and that’s $2,159 over two years.

Now, consider the Cricket Wireless option. You pay $649 for the phone, and then $45/month after that. If you stick with the plan for two years, that comes out to $1,729 total, $430 cheaper than the AT&T contract.*

*What about the payment plan option, AT&T Next? That’ll run you $2,209.20 total if you want the right to resell the phone.

Okay, you might say, but how reliable is Cricket Wireless’ network? The answer: exactly as reliable as AT&T’s. Cricket Wireless is in fact owned by AT&T, and so they use the same network. The lesser-known Cricket simply offers better plans for month-to-month smartphone users.

There are many other month-to-month providers as well, like Ting, Boost Mobile, US Cellular and Virgin Mobile, each of which offer rates comparable with Cricket. In fact, the only month-to-month providers we would advise against are the big players themselves—particularly AT&T and Verizon—who intentionally charge high month-to-month rates to discourage people from buying unlocked phones.

But what about families?

This all sounds great for an individual, you might say, but I’m interested in a family plan—something where I can share data among two or more family members. Does a no contract, month-to-month plan still work better for group plans?

Once again, the answer is yes. For example, Cricket Wireless offers 10 GBs of shared data for four lines at $100 total per month—which translates to a total bill of $4,996 after two years of service, including the costs of four top-shelf phones. Compare that to a two-year contract with AT&T or Verizon, where the overall cost is well over $7,000.

Bottom Line

In the end, it all comes down to how much sticker shock you can bear the day you buy your device. If you’re willing to purchase your phone unlocked—even if it costs you $650 on day one—you’ll save hundreds over the course of two years. And even if you get cold feet, you can cancel your plan and sell your device at anytime. You don’t need a contract to tell you that.

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TIME Video Games

4 Reasons Why Video Game Consoles Will Never Die

E3 Gaming And Technology Conference Begins In L.A.
Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images An Xbox One controller is used at the Microsoft Xbox booth during the Electronics Expo 2013 at the Los Angeles Convention Center on June 11, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.

It's not Game Over yet

By now, we know the “consoles are dead” narrative was overblown. The PS4 has sold tens of millions, the Xbox One isn’t far behind, and the Wii U has climbed from “disastrous” to only “mildly disappointing.”

Lately, however, consoles have become the ugly duckling of the video game world, less popular than the smartphone and less attractive than the all-powerful PC. They’re too expensive, too niche, and too geeky—or so the criticisms go.

But the console still has some long-term advantages that people tend to forget.

1. Reliable software quality, unlike the smartphone

Spend five minutes browsing the App Store or Google Play Store, and you’ll be overwhelmed by an avalanche of games, many of them garbage. For every smash hit (e.g. Angry Birds, Candy Crush), there are countless bug-ridden, unplayable imitators. Yes, the best-selling lists can at least highlight a few up-and-comers (ex: Trivia Crack, Crossy Road), but hundreds of other great games will end up buried beneath all the rubbish.

For developers, there’s far more incentive to game the system with in-app purchases and fake user reviews than to build something creative. After all, most of the good stuff gets lost in the crowd anyway—a consequence of mobile’s race-to-the-bottom, volume-beats-quality marketplace.

Compare that to the world of console gaming, where each platform has a stable, annual parade of triple-A titles, each of which are almost guaranteed to be hits, year after year. The PlayStation boasts exclusives like Uncharted, LitteBigPlanet, and the latest Metal Gear games. The Xbox brings Halo, Titanfall, and Forza. And then there’s Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA, Madden, and Elder Scrolls, series that owners of either console can trust to deliver, sequel after sequel. Nintendo offers a different lineup, but between Mario Kart, Smash Bros, Zelda, Pokemon and Donkey Kong, you’ve got a similar roster of predictably excellent games.

2. Accessibility, unlike the PC

Let’s face it: among serious gamers, the PC has rapidly become the best choice for gaming. A modern gaming PC will feature the best graphics of any system, and the whole gamut of software, from multi-million-dollar blockbusters to avant-garde indie experiments.

But getting the best out of PC gaming also means owning a pricey, powerful gaming PC, which is a tough sell for the general public. You’re looking at $1,000-2,000 just to get started—potentially over triple the price of a gaming console. Savvy PC owners will point out that the purchase pays off in the long run, especially considering PCs are more easily upgradable.

But how many everyday consumers will be willing to take that price hit up front? If the smartphone market has taught us anything, it’s that people prefer to spread their costs over several years, rather than pay everything right away.

In this way, the console market mirrors the smartphone model. Customers start by paying around $400 for the console (or phone) itself, then $40-60 for each additional game (or month of service). It’s a proven pricing scheme that consumers have accepted for decades.

Then you factor in user experience. From the day you buy a new console, every game will work as advertised. Compare that to the corresponding experience on a PC, where the specific graphics card and performance specifications of your machine will determine every aspect of the user experience. Video card outdated? Your brand new PC game will lurch along at low frame rates. Geeks might get a kick out of keeping their gaming rigs up to speed, but the rest of the market just wants to know that the latest Call of Duty will work straight out of the box.

3. Social appeal

It’s the most controversial point on the list, but an important one: consoles connect people—in person—better than any other gaming system. Yes, smartphones and PCs bring a greater volume of players together, and both deserve credit for the impressive gaming networks they’ve assembled. But when was the last time you physically visited a friends’ house to play Words With Friends? Or lugged your PC to a buddy’s place for drinks, cigars and a session of World of Warcraft? Only the console consistently brings people into the same room. If smartphones and PCs are social networks, the console is the digital equivalent of Monopoly or Risk—a 2015 version of board game night.

Some will say that such classic “couch multiplayer” is dying, and it’s true that far more people play Halo over the web than over a coffee table. But living room gaming still scratches a very human itch, one that will likely stick around—even in its reduced state—for decades to come.

4. Disappearing stigma

The final barrier for console gaming has been the stigma—that is, the sense that only teenage boys play console games. Sure, games like Cut the Rope (mobile) or The Sims 4 (PC) are casual and mainstream enough for anyone, but who—besides those male high schoolers—are actually settling in for three-hour rounds of FIFA on Xbox?

The answer: people of both genders and all ages. According to a 2014 study by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the average age for video game players in the US is 31 years, a number that’s been climbing for a decade. Today, 48% of game players are female. And we’re not just talking about smartphone game players. In the ESA’s study, 68% of respondents reported that they play games on a console, next to only 53% on a smartphone.

So the old teenage boy stigma is simply inaccurate. As each year passes, more and more people feel comfortable admitting to late-night sessions of Zelda and Assassin’s Creed. And that comfort will likely breed even more console gamers.

The Bottom Line

The console is here to stay, even if the future details remain a little murky. Will virtual reality finally break through? Will Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo still be the biggest players in 10 years time? Who knows. But the basic console recipe—consistent quality, a simple experience, social appeal, and societal approval—ensure that the medium will last. Just like with Mario, the game is never really over.

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