Apple’s introductions: is the iPhone 4S disappointing?

Update 2011-10-08: New section “Voices on the web”.

This post gives and overview of the introductions that Apple has made on Oct. 4, 2011. It will also tackle the question whether the iPhone 4S is disappointing.

iOS 5

iOS 5 is a compelling upgrade [4]. My favorites are:
  • iCloud and PC-free operation: That means that anyone can now pick up an iOS device and get started right away: They will have email, their data will be backed up, their data (contacts, calendars) synced and available via webapps. This will make the iPads much more attractive as stand-alone devices.
  • Notification Center: Finally! No more interrupting dialogs, e.g. when there is no network access in the email app.
  • Camera: can be accessed quickly from the lock screen and the volume button becomes a shutter button. This makes the iPhone much more viable as a camera.
  • iMessage: continues the march towards true network roaming (3G, Wi-Fi, etc.). Non-3G devices such as the iPod touch get to message with other iOS users. But non-iOS users can also be contacted, because iMessage transparently switches to SMS where necessary.

The new iPhone lineup

Apple now sells the following iPhones:
ModelPrice, 2yr contract
iPhone 4S (16GB-64GB)$199-$399
iPhone 4 (8GB)$99
iPhone 3GS (8GB)$0
Prices without a contract: I haven’t seen them published anywhere, yet. Comparison: In Canada, iPhone 4S prices start at $649.

This is a clear attack on cheap Android phones. While the 3GS is a two year old phone, it is still quite capable and runs Apple’s latest iOS version.

The iPhone 4S

What’s new?
  • Faster processor: The new dual-core A5 is much faster than the previous single-core A4, especially for graphics performance (“up to seven times faster”).
  • More memory: You can now get a maximum of 64GB (previously: 32GB).
  • Camera: More pixels (e.g. 1080p HD video), better lens, better sensors.
  • Battery life: More or less the same. That’s OK, especially considering the faster processor (and the competition). But it still could be more.
    iPhone 4SiPhone 4
    Talk time 3G Up to 8 hours Up to 7 hours
    Talk time 2G (GSM) Up to 14 hours Up to 14 hours
    Standby time Up to 200 hours Up to 300 hours
  • Redesigned antenna: The iPhone 4 antenna has always been OK for me, but improving it can’t hurt. Quoting “iPhone 4S Includes Significant Antenna Upgrades” by Jordan Golson for MacRumors.
    With the Verizon/CDMA iPhone, Webb believes Apple's designers "moved the GPS and Wi-Fi antennas beneath the back glass and turned the top antenna into a second antenna for the cell phone." This brought spatial diversity to the iPhone. This design helps solve the Antennagate problem, because the phone can switch between the antennas depending on signal conditions.

    "If you cover up an antenna, you're probably not covering up both antennas," Webb explains.
    "The iPhone 4S may indeed be the first phone to have diversity on both the send and receive sides, and that is a decently big deal [...]"

  • Siri: Siri might make voice interaction with a computer finally work. It is an iPhone 4S-only feature – according to Apple, because it needs the faster processor. Comments:
    • When you have a dialog with Siri, you get a visual history of what has happened so far. Siri also presents visual results, where appropriate (e.g. a map).
    • Siri has several sources it can use to improve its operation, because they provide context: The calendar, the contacts and the current dialog (when you previously searched for a location, you can search for things that are nearby).
    • External data source: Wolfram Alpha provides common knowledge (such as currency rates), Yelp provides rankings for restaurants, shops, doctors, etc.
    • Task-based operation: TUAW has compiled a list of things you can say to Siri. Among other things, it provides shortcuts for setting a timer or an alarm. Note that the vocabulary that is needed is still limited which should increase recognition accuracy. Accuracy improves, the more you use Siri.
    • Operates hands-free, eyes-free, visually impaired: read message to you, send simple messages. Dictated text is processed in the cloud.
    Siri has the potential to completely change how we interact with computers, similar to how multi-touch did. Apple wasn’t first in either case, but they were first in making them useful in practice.
  • World phone: GSM and CDMA are supported.

Is the iPhone 4S a disappointment?

That has become a meme on the internet: Apple has lost its touch, the competition is catching up, etc. Thoughts:
  • In some ways, Apple is catching up with the competition, e.g. with Android, via iCloud and notifications.
  • We already knew everything about iOS 5, so there were few new things revealed. It’s great that 2 year old devices can still be upgraded. Quoting AnandTech:
    iOS 5 will support all the same devices that iOS 4.3 does, meaning that the iPhone 3GS, the iPhone 4 (both GSM and CDMA), the 3rd and 4th generation iPod Touch, the iPad and iPad 2, and the new Apple TV will all get iOS 5 [...].
  • What can possibly be disappointing? That the iPhone 4S still looks the same? I like Apple’s steady, calm approach to doing things. Android has its own advantages, but its phone configurations and names are difficult to figure out. Go through the list above – you still get many new features.
  • It will sell well. Apple has become a mainstream company. I’m still perplexed how much non-tech people know about Apple. Part of that is because Apple always has a clear and simple marketing message. And they keep things stable over long periods of times, especially their product names. For example, I’ve heard a rumor that internally, Apple isn’t too fond of the i-names, any more, but they still use them for new products (iPad, iMessage, iCloud), where appropriate, because people are familiar with them.
  • The saddest opinion I’ve read is that the iPhone 4S is already a sign that Jobs isn’t at the helm. Apart from that that’s impossible to know, it isn’t even likely that the iPhone 4S would be different if Jobs was still alive and Apple CEO. Case in point: “Steve Jobs' Vision to Extend to Next iPhone”.
  • Pricing: Don’t forget the price attack on Android – $0 for an iPhone 3GS with a contract. That alone is big news, even though it’s not as flashy as new models.
Pertinent quote from “Teardrop Skepticism” on Daring Fireball:
I detect an undercurrent of sentiment that if Apple announces the iPhone 4S, it’d be a letdown, but if they announce the iPhone 5, it’d be exciting. But this is all merely about how the thing looks on the outside. A new form factor would by definition bring more “new-ness” to the announcement, but why should an iPhone 4-lookalike “iPhone 4S” be considered disappointing if it contains significantly improved components? The iPhone 4 is, I think it fair to say, the most popular device Apple has ever made.

Voices on the web

This section collects information that complements what you have read above.

A new form factor was never in the cards. Quoting “Thoughts and Observations Regarding This Week's iPhone 4S Event [...]” on Daring Fireball:

How About at Least a New Form Factor? The gist I get, after talking to some valuable little birdies over the past few days, is that a new form factor was never in the cards for this year’s iPhone. It may or may not have ideally launched a few months sooner, but the plan was always for an iPhone 4 successor that looked like the 4 but had improved internal components. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next iPhone doesn’t change, or doesn’t change much, either.

The iPhone is now a mass market product and does not have to compete with the iPhone 4S, but with the iPhone 3GS. Quoting again “Thoughts and Observations Regarding This Week's iPhone 4S Event [...]” on Daring Fireball:

The iPhone is now a mass market product. It is of course used by many gadget and technology enthusiasts, but gone are the years when iPhone sales tapered off in the quarter preceding a new iPhone. In 2008 and 2009, the iPhone audience was still a tech-enthusiast audience. Now, in 2011, the iPhone 4 remained the best-selling smartphone in the world right up until the 4S was announced. I wouldn’t be surprised if the iPhone 4 continues to sell well today.

As for the argument that Apple has failed because the iPhone 4S, however nice an improvement overall, is not enough to entice iPhone 4 users to upgrade — so what? Normal people don’t buy brand-new $700 smartphones each and every year. In the U.S. they buy them on two-year contracts, and they don’t shop for new ones until their old contracts are over. So the iPhone that the 4S needs to present a compelling upgrade for is the 3GS, not the 4.

Compared to Android, what is still missing in iOS?

The quotes below are from “Six months with the Nexus S” by Philipp von Weitershausen.
  • A back button; the ability to choose a different default web browser; “intentions” – hooks that allow apps to process and provide data. Quote:
    So it’s [the Nexus S] not perfect. But I have to say, I prefer it to iOS, mostly for one reason: the back button. It makes going from, say, email app to the browser to the Twitter app and back a piece of cake. It’s incredibly predictable and is exactly what I want: follow a link in an email or a tweet and get back to where I was when I’m done.
    Instead of having multiple apps work together like on Android, iOS apps are silos. The Twitter client, News Reader, etc. all contain a little web browser. I want a real browser, not a lobotomized web view!

    Android apps, on the other hand, have many hooks that allow them to work together, not just the back button. My favourite one is the Share feature. Apps can register themselves as share providers and other apps can share things through them.

  • A better keyboard. It should have more keys to avoid the frequent switching. And there are now many ideas out there that allow one to type more quickly and/or accurately. Quote:
    Lastly, another positive surprise was the keyboard. I thought the iOS one was already pretty good, but Android’s keyboard (at least the stock one in Gingerbread on the Nexus S) is even better. As you type, it already comes up with suggestions. Most of the time you don’t even have to finish typing a word, it will already be in the list of suggestions and you can save yourself a lot of tapping. On iOS, on the other hand, you have to tap on the suggestion to dismiss it. It still confuses the heck out of me, even though I know how it works.

Related reading

  1. The cost of iCloud per device
  2. iCloud icon versus classic Mac icon
  3. Apple’s iCloud: stealing a page from Google and more
  4. Overview and analysis: Apple’s WWDC 2011 announcements (Lion, iOS 5, iCloud)