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The iPhone Report: So Much for “Minor” Updates

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.