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The Apple Event Report: Not So Surprising

As I suggested in yesterday’s column, Tim Cook clearly has to meet a higher standard as he moves Apple forward into uncharted waters. In introducing the glass and aluminum-clad iPhone 5, Apple tried to raise the bar again in a hugely crowded market. A whole lot was changed, but most of the essentials were telegraphed in advance in rumor sites and the mainstream media as the result of various leaks.

So I’ll just cover the essentials. The new model is said to be 18% thinner and 20% lighter than its predecessor, despite having a larger Retina display, four inches, with a 1136×640 resolution.

Predictably, apps will have to be updated to be optimized for a larger screen. Existing apps won’t just scale up. If they haven’t been updated for the iPhone and iOS 6, they will be letterboxed. All of Apple’s own apps will support the new display size, and you can expect thousands of others to join the list within days of the iPhone 5’s release.

There are two key reasons for the iPhone 5’s thinner form factor. First is in-cell technology that combines touch and display components into a single part. The second is a new compact reversible connector, called Lightning, which will also be featured on the new iPods announced during Apple’s media event. For existing devices, there will be a 30-pin to Lightning adapter, selling for $29, so you may not have to throw your old accessories away. At the same time, I’m already reading some really dumb complaints from tech pundits about the new proprietary port (are you listening CNET?).

The iPhone 5 is considered a world phone, with support for GSM, CDMA, plus a bunch of related wireless technologies including LTE. Everything is accomplished with a single chip, but there will be three versions of the iPhone 5 to accommodate different frequencies and technologies. The world’s carriers are that fragmented.

In promising that they updated “every aspect” of the iPhone 5, Apple also introduced the A6 chip that’s said to be 22% smaller than the A5 and capable of twice the performance. Battery life is advertised at 8 hours for LTE networking, 10 hours for Wi-Fi. Compare that with many Android LTE phones that can barely do half that.

The eight megapixel camera, with sapphire crystal lens, is said to deliver better optical quality at the same resolution as the iPhone 4s. With spatial noise reduction and superior low-light performance, there’s the promise of even better photos and movies. You can also create extreme widescreen images using the Panorama feature, a part of iOS 6. With a resolution of 720p, the front camera can now be called HD, for better FaceTime and Skype connections.

Other enhancements include a better speaker, an improved noise canceling earpiece accomplished with a third mic, and even wideband audio, assuming the carriers cooperate. Once the technology spreads, it will mean a level of audio quality that far exceeds what you usually get on a highly compressed wireless connection.

After listening to Jonathan Ive describe the iPhone 5’s advanced manufacturing process, Macworld’s Dan Moren, who covered the event, remarked, “Apparently they cut things with diamonds. I feel like if we go any further, the next iPhone will have to be designed by a supervillain.”

The price for all this joy? As expected, it’s the same as last year: $199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, and $399 for 64GB, along with the standard two-year carrier contract. An 8GB version of the iPhone 4s will be available for $99, and a similarly configured iPhone 4 will be free with carrier contracts. The iPhone 3GS, circa 2009, is history, although it can be upgraded to iOS 6, with some resource heavy features, such as the new mapping capabilities, missing in action.

As predicted, iPhone 5 preorders begin Friday, September 14, and the units will ship beginning September 21 in nine countries. Some 21 more countries will get the iPhone 5 the following week, and other carriers around the world will get theirs before the end of the year. The iOS 6 update, sporting some 200 new features, will arrive on September 19, which may be sufficient time to keep Apple’s servers from being overloaded during initial activations on the iPhone 5.

Next on the agenda was a presentation by Apple VP Jeffrey Robbin, a long-time Mac developer whom I knew in the 1990s, who demonstrated a major iTunes update. Available in late October, the new iTunes will sport improved playlist handling, a niftier MiniPlayer and loads of other goodies. The iTunes Store is heavily redesigned, closely resembling the iPad version, and there’s full integration with iCloud. I also hope Jeff and his crew have been hard at work to address some of the performance issues of iTunes in developing this update.

Meantime, iTunes 10.7, designed mostly to support iOS 6, was released after the media event.

The final product introduction consisted of a vastly improved iPod lineup. The 7th generation iPod nano looks for all the world like a miniature iPod touch, with 2.5-inch LCD display that supports multitouch. The new nano also includes an FM tuner with a live pause feature. Long-time iPod users will also be pleased to learn that video playback has been restored, and there’s even support for Bluetooth. In addition, the iPod nano will have access to 175,000 iOS game and entertainment apps. Yes, it really is a miniature version of the iPod touch.

The new iPod touch is, to a fair extent, similar to the iPhone 5 with a four-inch screen and front and rear cameras. Apple also introduced EarPods, a new generation of earphones with the promise of a better fit in your ear, and superior sound. You’ll get one standard issue with the upgraded iPod nano, iPod touch and the iPhone 5. EarPods are also be available separately for $49.

The fourth generation iPod touch will cost $299 for the 32GB version and $399 for the 64GB version. The iPod nano, with 16GB of storage, will cost $149; the 2GB iPod shuffle remains $49. The refreshed iPods will be available in October. For now, at least, the 160GB iPod classic remains in the lineup for $249. It was first introduced in 2009, and you wonder how long the last remaining iPod with a mechanical hard drive will survive once the new models ship.

In old-school Apple event tradition, the meeting ended with three songs from the Foo Fighters.

As I said, no surprises there, but Apple clearly hit all the marks. Was it the biggest product launch in history, as some tech pundits suggested? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Indeed, a few tech pundits said it lacked “sizzle,” but it’s quite clear that customers will be buying this gear in record numbers.

And, as you no doubt heard, nothing was said about an iPad mini. However, published reports indicate that product intro is on tap for next month, so we’ll see.