Apple didn't get its usual wave of positive reviews when it introduced its new iPhone this week. In the wake of what amounts to a product refresh, Wall Street swooned (the stock was down more than 5% at one point before rallying to close off just over 1% on the day) and Apple fanboys attacked (the live blog comment streams have been relentlessly critical). But the fact is, Apple did introduce some significant new features. As executives from Tim Cook on down were quick to emphasize, in what is obviously a well-rehearsed talking point, the innovation in this go-round is on the inside--the hardware, operating system, and applications--not the design and materials.
In hardware, Apple essentially took the guts of the iPad 2, a dual-core A5 CPU with more RAM and better graphics performance, and crammed it into a phone. But it actually did the iPad one better by significantly improving the rear-facing camera, which now sports a full 8-megapixel sensor; new, wider-aperture lens; faster startup time; and better image-enhancement software, including an automated HDR (high dynamic range) mode. Oh, by the way, it takes 1080p video too. The 4S includes a new dual-band GSM/CDMA radio, meaning Verizon customers can now roam the world, using two antennas and some new software to improve RF reception (perhaps eliminating the "grip of death" once and for all).
The software announcement was largely a reprise of the iOS/iCloud rollout at Apple's June Worldwide Developers Conference. For those with short memories, the major new iOS features are an Android-like notification center; a pull-down menu strip indicating new mail, text, and voice messages; calendar events and application-specific notifications (like Twitter mentions or Facebook messages); Apple's new text messaging system, iMessages; Twitter integration; built-in photo editing; and iCloud integration. iCloud is Apple's transparent system for synchronizing content--music, photos, apps, documents, calendars, books, essentially everything on your iThings--across platforms.
Apple's trademarked, "one-more-thing moment" came with the introduction of the Siri intelligent assistant that gives the iPhone a HAL 9000-like voice-command interface for doing everything from dictating text and email messages and creating calendar events to querying websites for nearby restaurants and the local weather forecast. While this looked like something from Hollywood in the controlled environs of the product briefing, I'll reserve final judgment until doing my in-depth hands-on review.
Which brings us to pricing and availability. As with the iPad 2 rollout, Apple is sticking with its standard price points, with the 16-GB 4S coming in at $199, 32 GB at $299, and 64 GB topping out at $399, all with a two-year wireless contract. All models come in black or white and are available from AT&T, Verizon, and now Sprint. Existing wireless customers can check to see if they're eligible for subsided pricing by visiting a handy app on Apple's website. Preorders start online Friday with shipments and in-store availability to commence Oct. 14. As a consolation prize to those looking for a less pricey device, Apple will keep the old iPhone 4 on the shelves at $99 and give the 3GS away for free, again, with a contract. All will ship with iOS 5, and existing iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch owners can upgrade to the new OS a couple days early, starting on Oct. 12.
While Apple's announcement wasn't as dramatic as the blogosphere had predicted (when does reality ever measure up to hope and desire?), the 4S does represent a significant, evolutionary improvement over the existing iPhone 4. Whether it's enough to get existing users to upgrade, or steal share from the crop of new Android models, is open questions, but we'll get a good indication by the size of the lines outside Apple stores a week from Friday.