Curious Rat

That Disruptive Retina Display

Dana Levine at The Tech Block doesn't think the Retina display is a disruptive technology (↬ Shadoe Huard):

So there’s a problem with these retina displays that Apple is gradually rolling out on their machines – they are a nice-to-have, but not really disruptive to what we already have. When you look at disruptive technologies (as defined in The Innovator’s Dilemma), they typically enable use cases that their predecessors didn’t (such as allowing devices to be smaller or lighter). There isn’t actually any new use case that a retina display enables, other than being prettier. It’s not like visible pixels in any way diminish the functional experience.

I never read The Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, but according to its Wikipedia page (and as we all know, Wikipedia is always right):

First published in 1997, Christensen suggests that successful companies can put too much emphasis on customers' current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet customers' unstated or future needs;

So, according to Levine, the Retina display wasn't disruptive because it didn't make the iPhone smaller or lighter. However, according to the author of the book Levine is referencing, the Retina display actually was disruptive because it was a new technology that met the customer's unstated needs.

In other words, we didn't know we needed screens with pixel densities over 300 PPI because no other company was giving them to us. The iPhone 4 wasn't just the first Apple device to feature a Retina screen, it was also the first device of its kind. No other mobile phone on the market had a screen as crisp and beautiful as the iPhone 4. Once it had been on the market and performed well, competitors scrambled to catch up.

That's disruption.

And to Levine's point, the way the screen is laminated to the glass in the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 also contributes to their thinness.

Then there's that little matter of the sentence at the end of the above passage:

It’s not like visible pixels in any way diminish the functional experience.

Tell that to a voracious reader, or someone who loves true HD video and console-quality graphics. Visible pixels matter and now that they've gone away, we certainly don't want them to come back.

Wasn't that why Cult of Mac's John Brownlee passed on the iPad mini?

The form factor’s perfect, it’s beautifully designed, you will love holding it… but the screen’s awful and the performance is lacking, especially in graphics. Even at the price, it’s a deeply disappointing product that most people should think twice about buying right now.

And Shawn Blanc is also someone who loves him some pixels:

Nevertheless, I’m sticking with my iPad 3. In part because I don’t know if I’ve ever gotten used to my Retina devices — and here I mean the “good” kind of not getting used to them. In that the crisp and sharp displays of my iPhone and iPad screens still seem uncanny to me even though I’ve had a Retina iPhone since the summer of 2010.

On my iPad 3 I play very few games and I watch very little video. I mostly read or write. It’s text that I’m staring at most of the time. And it’s in the text that Retina screens shine the brightest.

Which is why I was stunned to find Blanc had suddenly changed his tune on the Retina display today (↬ once again, Shadoe Huard):

I think Levine is right. As awesome as Retina displays are, they don’t fundamentally change the usability or use-case scenarios of the iPad. It’s crazy to think that a bitmapped screen displaying pixels at a density rivaling print, is, in a way, nothing more than an iterative step in the evolution of hardware.

I guess if the Retina display doesn't fundamentally change the usability of the iPad, then he'll be able to switch right over to the iPad mini now, right?

And if the display was so iterative, why was Apple the first one to do it and hold on to the "best in class" ranking for so long? Two years later, we have an Android phone with a 1080p screen that bests the Retina display, but sacrifices battery life as a result.

Apple's new screen technology was disruptive. The fact that its phones and tablets got thinner and lighter with better screens, as well as good battery life was disruptive.

It's been said that capacitive touch screen phones were a logical evolutionary step for the future of mobile computing, but look who started that trend, too. The most fascinating thing about Apple's devices isn't how advanced the tech is, but how ubiquitous and natural that technology becomes in such a short amount of time.

We forget it wasn't always like this.