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Notes on the iPhone 4S announcement

Similarly to my previous notes on the iPad 2 launch, here are a few things I noticed about Tuesday's event that were too small to deserve a post of their own.

On it being the iPhone 4S and not the iPhone 5

The iPhone 4 is the best selling smartphone in the US. The iPhone 4S presents a solid upgrade over last year's model in several key areas: raw speed, camera performance, and the new Siri voice-recognition technology.

And yet, many pundits are disappointed. For a typical example, consider Henry Blodget's post at Business Insider. There's even talk of a company-wide Apple "fall from grace" by Zach Epstein at Boy Genius Report. If you want more where that came from, there's a good round-up of opinions from professional analysts by Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Wall Street was somewhat unhappy too, with Apple shares dropping during the announcement but ultimately rallying to finish down a modest 0.6%. Meanwhile RIM shares dropped to a yearly low, so it seems Wall Street is more skeptical about Apple's competitors than it is about Apple itself.

Clearly opinions are mixed. Plenty of people are simply happy, like Dan Frommer and Marco Arment. Others, like MG Siegler (warning, NSFW language), are saying that analysts and pundits "do not understand" Apple and that the backlash is idiotic. And yet... I've spoken with as many family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and Twitter followers that could tolerate me blathering on about Apple again, and I've paid particular attention to the non-technical ones, the normal folk, the not-geeks.

Many of them, not all of them but more than half, are slightly negative. They've told me they're "lukewarm" on upgrading, that they are "looking at Android" more seriously, that they were "underwhelmed" by the announcement. One friend waited at the end of his contract for a few months but might stick with his 3GS now. Another wasn't sure if the iPhone 4S was worth the money over the iPhone 4.

So do these naysayers have a point?

Let me talk for a moment about how I feel. It's my considered opinion that the 4S represents a relatively modest upgrade over the iPhone 4. Having slept on it I've decided that the approximate £275 ($450) it would cost me to upgrade my unlocked 32 GB iPhone 4 is too steep a price to pay for the benefits the 4S would bring me -- but I'm not convinced this is a bad thing. iPhones are expensive devices usually tied to expensive two-year contracts and I don't really want to buy a new one every year.

I'm also not convinced Apple can make enough of them for everyone to upgrade every year -- consider how long it was into 2010 before you could stroll into any Apple store and have much hope of finding an iPhone 4 on the shelf to buy. I don't think Tim Cook is losing any sleep because I've decided not to upgrade. Also, looking back, the iPhone 3G wasn't that big of a step forward from the original iPhone (3G chipset, same internals) -- and the 3GS wasn't a huge improvement over the 3G (faster chipset, slightly better camera). Apple's model here is evolutionary changes and I think it's perfectly comfortable with many users being on an "every other" upgrade cycle. It helps a lot that old devices continue to receive new versions of iOS, of course.

But! It's important not to lose sight of the fact that value is in the eye of the beholder. Particularly keen photographers, the visually impaired, frequent international travellers: these people will get more value from the iPhone 4S's new features and so find the upgrade cost more reasonable. And also there's (sadly!) plenty of people out there with deeper pockets than I have, who'll care less about the money.

Still, though, there's certainly a lot of people out there for whom the absence of a new chassis design for the iPhone seems to be a major problem. Haters gonna hate, as always, and certainly bold "Apple has lost its way! Doooomed!!" headlines will garner cheap pageviews, but is this anything more than that? [Does anyone remember the 3GS update being called disappointing as well? - Ed.]

I do wonder if, perhaps, Apple's cone of silence has gone a little too far in recent times and started to work against it. Perhaps it needs to do a little more to calm down the runaway speculation that proceeds one of these big announcements, maybe via some controlled and anonymous leaks. Otherwise these tedious backlashes (and the backlash-backlashses of people criticising the "whiners") will continue. Then again, as Apple continues to print money with everything it makes, it'd be pretty justified in not caring one whit either way.

There's also the risk from competitors to consider. Apple is in approximately-annual refresh cycles, so we can assume we're not getting any more iPhones for at least nine months. Does the iPhone 4S take it far enough ahead of the pack of Android, Windows Phone 7, and other smartphone platforms to stay relevant over that timeframe? Certainly, there are crowd-pleasing features that Apple lacks, such as larger screens and LTE or WiMax 4G network access. But again, I keep coming back to the fact that the iPhone 4 and 3GS were selling extremely strongly right up to the eve of this announcement, and they lacked these features too. They matter to some people but I don't think they matter to most.

There are two bottom lines here. The first is that for most folk the 4S probably represents a bigger step forward over the 4 than the 3GS was over the iPhone 3, and certainly more than the 3G over the first iPhone -- and yet all those models were huge success stories. I think the 4S will end up doing just fine, a point that even Blodget concedes. As I write this a few hours after pre-orders began, we have the usual stories of websites crashing under huge demand and cellphone operators warning they are running out of stock -- although of course it's how sales go in the first months, rather than the first hours, that really count.

But the second point is: no-one actually knows, unless they have a crystal ball hidden away (and I know of no superstar bloggers who win the lottery every week, so that's doubtful). It's possible (but I think unlikely) that Apple committed a strategic gaffe, it's possible (and I think more likely) that the iPhone 4S will sell strongly for the year to come. All we can do is watch and see.

Carriers

Two things of note in the US carriers part of the announcement. Firstly, Sprint will not be getting just the iPhone 4S but also the 4, which will doubtless help it sell into the middle market as well as the top tier. And the iPhone (in any flavour) is still not available on T-Mobile US. This is probably because the 4S, like previous models, still doesn't support the 1700 MHz frequency band, which T-Mobile uses for its 3G service.

Siri

Without a doubt, Siri was the most impressive part of the presentation; a real example of what Apple does best. High technology, sure, but tempered with a real depth of thought put into the usability and usefulness of the new features.

One open question about Siri is when its language support will improve. Ominously, Apple states that "Siri is available in Beta only on iPhone 4S and requires Internet access. Siri may not be available in all languages or in all areas, and features may vary by area. Cellular data charges may apply." Surveying the various international pages for Siri suggests that, at least at launch, it will support English (US, Australian and UK), French and German. However, on all the other iPhone 4S pages I looked at, Siri isn't mentioned as a feature. Bafflingly, this includes other English-language countries such as Canada and Ireland, plus Japan, Spain, Mexico, Norway, Italy, Switzerland, and Denmark. Of course, it is clearly marked as "beta" and Phil Schiller promised more languages would be added without promising which ones or when. This will inevitably dent sales of the 4S in many countries, as Siri is a banner feature for the new hardware and a big part of the reason to choose a 4S over an iPhone 4.

Another improvement I'd like to see made to Siri in the future is an API to allow arbitrary apps to plug into it. For example, if I tell Siri "show me the way to go home" I want it to load CoPilot rather than Google Maps. This seems like one of those things Apple naturally fills in later; it couldn't do anything before the announcement, of course, without giving the game away as to how deeply integrated Siri was. However it could introduce UI problems as presumably the user would need extra configuration screens to manage exactly which apps would be triggered by various Siri actions.

That same footnote on the Siri page also says "requires Internet access." We never did find out exactly what that big data center Apple built was for -- given that iTunes content is mostly stored in CDNs and iCloud is implemented on top of Microsoft's Azure and Amazon's EC2 platforms.

I'm speculating that at least some of that data center's huge processing capacity is for Siri, and that at least some portion of Siri's sophisticated voice recognition works in the cloud. Presumably not all of it, otherwise it won't work when you are in a weak signal area; but consider what happens when you dictate text to the Siri software. It reads the text back and asks you to confirm that you are happy with the transcription. This is a classic setup for machine learning algorithms, and I think perhaps that each time you teach Siri a correction for a word it is uploaded to the cloud and, eventually, downloaded to everyone else's Siri implementations. There's very few effective ways to build a phoneme database of all the world's dialects and accents, but this would work (for a fascinating look at how Google solved the same problem, look at the history of GOOG-411).

If my rampant and baseless speculation is correct, this means that Siri is a huge, powerful, learning network with nodes all around the world. Hopefully it'll never become self-aware, eh?

On the iPhone 3GS, the iPod touch, and fragmentation

The 3GS is still available on two year contracts for the foreseeable future. That means it'll still have nominally up-to-date users well into 2014, six years after it was introduced. That's a very long time in cell phones -- take a look at PCWorld's "best phones of 2005" for a reminder of how long.

This may be challenging for devs to cope with because it widens the performance gap between the best and worst models they might reasonably be expected to support. This isn't the same fragmentation problem as Android faces, as the 3GS will run iOS 5 so the software is the same. Nevertheless, it might introduce problems, particularly for games developers. We've already seen some "iPad 2 only" and "iPhone 4 only" games here at TUAW and this trend might accelerate in the future, leaving 3GS owners out in the cold.

However, in an unusual move Apple didn't upgrade the iPod touch to the same A5 CPU and powerful GPU fitted to the iPhone 4S. Smaller games devs might therefore prefer not to allocate resources to making games take full advantage new faster chips. As Apple said itself at the event, the iPod touch is very significant in the games market. App developers writing performance-sensitive apps will have to ask themselves some tough questions about how to best optimise those apps over the coming year. (I'd speculate, incidentally, that this was a move to ringfence A5 production capacity for the iPhone 4S and prevent component shortage. Apple is working hard to ensure the iPhone 4S is as widely available as possible).

Also, at least here in the Europe, the 3GS is still very expensive without a contract -- £329 ($510) in the UK. Despite Tim Cook's talk of how Apple only has 5% of the entire phone market, it seems to have not yet decided the time is right for an aggressive push into the pre-pay market, and for that they are going to have to sell a much, much cheaper iPhone. The time might never be right for them to do that. Trading profit margin for market penetration isn't a common Apple tactic.

Conclusion

Apple is a big, secretive company. Which means the best time to figure out what is on its hivemind is when it makes bold, public moves like launching flagship products.

I'd say that the iPhone 4S announcement shows a company confident in its existing products, willing to stick with an existing chassis design and risk disappointing a few people with sky-high expectations. It shows a firm still pushing the envelope in unexpected and imaginative directions, a firm that can "innovate at the margins" as Jason Kottke puts it -- instead of a bigger screen or thinner phone, we got revolutionary voice technology. It shows a vibrant company that, even in the wake of the tragic loss of its most prominent genius, is still fascinating to watch and a pleasure to purchase things from. I will continue to enjoy doing both.

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