While the iPhone 4S may have disappointed those who expected more innovation in the hardware, Apple's voice-controlled personal assistant could become the phone's next defining feature.
Apple acolytes must feel a bit like jilted lovers, as if they'd been personally invited to fly to Apple headquarters for the next super gadget, only to be handed a mere mortal iPhone, a few innovations behind in the game of smartphone envy. Surely now it's just a matter of time before iPhone diehards blow off the line at the Apple Store to take a peek at the latest Samsung Self-Indulgent or HTC Hullabaloo.
The iPhone 4S's specs: Dual-core processor; 8-megapixel camera (with backside illuminator sensors, hybrid infrared filter, five-element lens, larger aperture); HD (1080p) video.
Oh, how February of you, Apple!
No 4.3-inch display? No Near Field Communication? No 4G? No lightened load, no tapered design, no rugged encasement? No 3-D? No on-the-wall projector? No fish-eye camera lens? No mustache waxer?
Surely Apple doesn't expect people to whip out the 4S beside the swipe-and-pay Nexus S, or the whispy Samsung Galaxy SII?
And yet they will. What the iPhone 4S lacks in gasp-worthy hardware features it promises to make up for with Siri, Apple's new voice-controlled personal assistant software. If Siri works well, the bond between consumers and the iPhone will grow stronger, bordering on the irrational. iPhone owners will name their phones, whisper it sweet nothings. In public its users will make a show of it all: Kings of business will bark and bellow commands on busy Manhattan streets.
As InformationWeek's Eric Zeman points out, the iPhone 4S' missing features are a bit baffling, but every new chip and every extra pixel introduces yet another drain on the battery. NFC will be nice to have, but it isn't driving the adoption of so-equipped phones, nor a spontaneous consumption of merchandise.
The iPhone 4S is an improved iPhone, down to the prolonged battery life and the subtle optics added to the camera--an enhancement to what was already very good. The iPhone 4S is not an iPhone 5, but only in name.
Apple will ship the 4S with iOS 5 and iCloud, both detailed four months ago; the excitement of yesterday's news may have waned, but that hardly diminishes the details. Perhaps if Apple had only named iOS 5 after a delicious dessert, everyone would still be drooling.
iOS 5 includes yawners like tabbed browsing, browser reading lists (transferable across iOS devices), a multi-faceted presence and real-time messaging application (iMessage), wireless device sync and wireless content mirroring to a TV using Airplay. Apple has added better notifications, but this is really just fixing what was broken; still, those notifications are nicely woven into the user experience.
Put differently: the iPhone 4S is the culmination of a body of work to create an improved mobile experience; an upgrade, just not a generational one.
Apple's new phone will be measured not necessarily by unmet expectations, but by how it stacks up to other choices. Android and BlackBerry smartphones may possess many of the new capabilities of iOS 5, and may surpass the hardware of the iPhone 4S. And while it is easy enough to put mobile platforms side by side for comparison, there has always been something about the Apple smartphone experience that repels some and hypnotizes others.
This time, Apple managed to set the bar high again with Siri, a feature that turns your phone into your personal assistant, responding to voice commands and, apparently not just deciphering your words, but also your meaning--a form of Artificial Intelligence. Its job entails, among other tasks, finding restaurants, scheduling meetings, dictating notes, reciting emails, and generally responding to your every whim.
One Tweeter hoped that Siri wouldn't become this year's version of Microsoft Bob. Some observers worried that users would need to speak to Siri as if to a child. All of that would be very un-Apple like.
Siri, alone, will become the defining, magical feature of the iPhone 4S -- that intangible thing that makes the iPhone more than just another phone.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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