The iPhone Report: So Much for “Minor” Updates

October 6th, 2011

So the press has a new theme today, and that is that Tuesday’s Apple media event was a huge disappointment, simply because the new iPhone looks the same as the iPhone. Reminds me of an old Who song about the new boss being the same as the old boss.

In any case, Apple often keeps a form factor through several product revisions. Consider the MacBook Pro, and the iMac, both of which have gone through several refreshes without changing the basic looks. But you don’t hear too many complaints about the lack of a new case design. If form follows function, Apple has hit on the right formula for the standard and thin note-books. All right, the MacBook Air had a decent revision last year, which only means that the current design will persist for a while.

So in keeping with that tradition, and, in fact, the tradition of the iPhone 3 series, Apple kept the same case design for the iPhone 4s, but revised the innards, substantially in fact, almost as if Apple threw out everything and started over. From an A5 processor with twice the power, graphics hardware capable of seven times the performance of the previous model, to substantially improved camera components and even video stabilization for 1080p high definition movies, clearly Apple made major improvements. It’s not just a shave and a haircut, even if some members of the media want to express that fiction.

The new antenna system, sort of similar to the diversity antennas you find on autos, sounds really terrific in theory, being able to switch from one antenna to the other for receiving and transmitting. Maybe it’s also a workable solution for that so-called death grip, but that won’t be certain until the iPhone 4s reaches customers and product reviewers who will put it through, I’m sure, extreme tests. I wonder what Consumer Reports, reportedly not invited to the Apple media event, will say since they refused to recommend the original iPhone 4.

And don’t forget the Siri voice assistant, which appears, at first brush, to be the realization of the dream of being able to converse with a computing device in plain language without encountering lots and lots of errors. Hal, we can hear you now!

On the other hand, you should expect that the media would love to bring Apple down on its knees, and turn the fact that the iPhone 4s is a major upgrade topsy-turvy. It sells papers, gets ratings, and garners lots and lots of hits. Indeed, I can just now see a certain online commentator, who has gotten his comeuppance frequently in these columns, writing his iPhone epitaph, explaining why you shouldn’t buy the new phone since it’s really just a “minor” improvement over the older model.

Now I suppose Apple could have actually delivered a whole new form factor, sporting that so-called tapered aluminum unibody design that’s become so prominent in Mac note-books. It would satisfy some of the more virulent critics, but would it make the iPhone any better? And consider the cost to accessory designers who would be forced to redo their cases as the result. Now, more or less, they can sell you last year’s case for this year’s model. Your existing iPhone 4 bumpers ought to work, though, truth to tell, the Verizon Wireless version was a little off. So maybe it’ll be a poor fit; we’ll know soon enough.

Now there is one area where the old design doesn’t quite compete, and that’s against Android smartphones with larger screens. To some 3.5 inches isn’t enough. You need four or more, and there was a theory at one point that the iPhone 5 would have an edge-to-edge display to accomplish the same trick with a smaller case.

While anyone who is not as young as they used to be would appreciate a larger screen, there’s also the practical matter of the physical space the gadget occupies on your pocket, purse, or smartphone holster. How big does the iPhone become before it becomes just a tiny iPad? Wait, they used to consider the iPad nothing more than a bloated iPod touch, and look what happened?

This isn’t to say that Apple won’t produce that vastly redesigned iPhone 5 next year, replete with larger screen and support for 4G or LTE network architecture. Indeed, what Apple doesn’t tell you when they tout the superior download speeds of the iPhone 4s is the fact that it’s something near-impossible to achieve in the U.S. Sprint and Verizon Wireless use a different technology. AT&T has only limited support for 14.4 Mbps HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access), which means most users in this country will be forced to contend with roughly half that speed, which really happens at peak levels anyway. But it’s still faster than what the other two carriers offer.

In any case, what really matters is customer reaction and how many are going to be buying the new iPhone when it hits the streets next week. Will you see lines snaking around Apple Stores? What about servers going bust under the load of preorders? In the end, if Apple sells boatloads of them, as I expect they will, and customers are satisfied, it won’t matter what the skeptics say.

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4 Responses to “The iPhone Report: So Much for “Minor” Updates”

  1. Arnold Ziffel says:

    One reason I see for the screen staying at 3.5″ is that it is relatively easy to use one-handed. I can reach across the front of iPhone using my thumb, but doing that with a 4.5″ screen would be much more difficult. Besides, when I want more screen real estate, I grab my iPad or Mac.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    I’m sure someone will do one of those infographic flow charts on “How to Whine About the New iPhone”. I can imagine it now with:

    “Is it larger than the old one?” -> “Way too clunky! Who has a hand that big?”
    “Is it smaller than the old one?” -> “Way too tiny! Too easy to lose, too small to use.”
    “Is it the same size as the old one?” -> “Why can’t Apple EVER innovate?”

    I’m not a big fan of voice control. Where I grew up, the people walking around talking to themselves were usually also on or should have stayed on medication.” Still, I hope it works better than autocompletion. I used it for two weeks when I got my iPhone, and it NEVER guessed the right thing. It seemed to come with some dictionary from Mars. I even double checked the settings to be sure. I finally turned it off.

    My main hope for voice control would be quick navigation to a particular app. Right now it takes three or four clicks, so saying “Clock” or “Camera” might be more convenient, but I’d probably have to click something to get to voice control. Having to say “take picture” or “create appointment at five pee em with plumber” seems like it would take a lot longer than typing.

  3. Peter says:

    My complaint with the whole “iPhone 5” thing isn’t the form factor–I’ll need to replace my iPhone case for my bicycle and I’m psyched that I won’t have to wait for the company to develop a new form factor and that I won’t have to wait for Apple to figure out how to make a white “iPhone 5.”

    My grumble with it is, “Why did I have to wait until October?”

    Back at WWDC, there were rumors swirling about the iPhone 4s. If Apple had released the phone then, they would have received universal acclaim. But because the phone was “late” (by punditry standards), the assumption was that it was because there was something more interesting in the pipeline.

  4. jase says:

    I have owned an iPhone 3G, a 3GS and I have gotten to use an iPhone 4. To be honest, I thought that the biggest jump in usability was going from the 3G to the 3GS. The improved speed of the 3GS meant that it did not feel laggy like the 3G did. And going from no videocamera in the 3G and a fairly usable still camera, to having a good videocamera and a significantly better still camera, was a big improvement.

    I know that the iPhone 4 is faster, has a better display and a better camera, but honestly there is nothing that bothers me about my 3GS that compels me to upgrade to the iPhone 4. When I had my iPhone 3G, I really did want to upgrade because I wanted a videocamera, I wanted a better still camera, and the iPhone 3G was slow enough overall to annoy me when I was using it.

    Perhaps the Siri assistant will compel me to upgrade to the IPhone 4S. Or perhaps the iPhone 5 will be even much better than the iPhone 4s. But I get the feeling that once the 3GS became “good enough”,then each new iteration of the iPhone would provide less of an increase in marginal utility than the model that it replaces.

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