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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

iPhone 4S: It's the Software, Stupid

Posted by Goldy on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Anthony's not alone in finding Apple's long anticipated release of the iPhone 4S a bit of a snoozer. Gizmodo's Mat Honan is disappointed, as are a number of other underwhelmed tech writers. Even Wall Street was unimpressed, pushing Apple's stock down as much as 5 percent yesterday, before it recovered with the rest of the market to close marginally down. (The usual disclosure: I own a few shares of AAPL in my IRA.)

But the more I read about the new iPhone 4S, and the more I watch the demos, the more I think critics are overplaying the unchanged exterior design, and underplaying the many improvements inside. And I'm not mostly talking about hardware upgrades like the twice-as-fast A5 processor, the CDMA/GSM "world phone" wireless, and what appears to be a kick-ass 8 MP camera with vastly improved optics. No, the most exciting part of yesterday's announcement was the software, specifically the Siri personal assistant that promises to change the way we interact with computing devices. You know... eventually.

Now I know what you're thinking: Siri natural language recognition and dictation can't possibly work as well as shown in this slick promotional video. Visions of the Newton handwriting recognition debacle instantly dance in your head. But despite the fact that Apple is branding Siri a "beta" product, various independent hands-on reports and videos posted after yesterday's announcement show it working with nary a hitch. It's really quite remarkable. Almost creepy. And possibly game-changing.

Yeah, habits are hard to change, and a lot of people might feel weird talking to their computers, handheld or otherwise, but if Siri works as advertised, it offers a dramatically faster and more convenient interface for interacting with a smartphone. In fact, more than four years after the introduction of the original iPhone, Apple has finally addressed what critics at the time insisted was its primary weakness: That damn, virtual keyboard. There are things pictured in that video above, and other demos I've seen, for which I would never bother to use my old iPhone 3G, because it would just take too much time and effort. But combined with other hardware and software improvements, I can imagine Siri changing not just the way I use my iPhone, but what I use it for.

For example, take "geo-fencing," a feature that has been available for some time via apps for both iPhone and Android. At yesterday's announcement, Apple's Scott Forstall instructed Siri to "remind me to call my wife when I leave work." Siri created a reminder triggered not by time, but by his physical location as determined via GPS. Again, creepy, right? But I can imagine many uses for such location based features, especially when they can be set up with a simple voice command, rather than through a series of clunky swipes, gestures, and taps.

Potentially game-changing. If it works. And people are willing to use it. Which, I'd wager, ultimately they will, because it's just so much easier and faster than tapping and swiping. And it's a feature that, while closely tied to new hardware (Siri won't work on the older iPhone 4), is not a hardware feature in itself, and thus not much of a feature at all to those tech heads who insist on comparing smartphones based on technical specifications alone.

Which brings me to the hardware, and a question I think fair to ask of all those complaining about Apple's lack of innovation: What did you expect?

A whole new industrial design? The iPhone's design changed minimally between 2007's original version and 2009's third generation 3GS, so why would you expect Apple to so quickly mess with the iPhone 4's iconic design, which has proven hugely popular, and more than a year later remains about as distinctive as you'll find in a market that largely consists of similarly sized, multi-touch glass slabs? Are you disappointed by the lack of 4G? Yeah, they could've included that, though it's not widely available, and Apple had already telegraphed that it wasn't coming. A larger screen? Sure, but that would have required making the iPhone's form factor larger too, so there's a tradeoff. Near-field communications? To what end?

In fact, the history of iPhone is one of incremental improvements. The seconded generation 3G merely added GPS and the faster wireless standard from which it got its name, leaving the rest of the phone's design and tech specs mostly unchanged. The next year, the 3GS merely added a faster process and an improved camera. Granted, the iPhone 4 was a bit of a leap, with a yet faster processor, a better camera, its "retina display," and that snazzy new design, but that made a similar leap to the fifth generation all the more difficult. I mean, honestly... apart from a brand new design, what's missing?

As it is, the iPhone 4S offers a faster processor, Bluetooth 4.0, dual-mode CDMA/GSM operation, 14.4 Mbps HSDPA downloads, longer battery life, Airplay mirroring, true 1080p HDMI output, and a vastly superior 8 MP camera that boasts improved optics, half-second operation, and 1080p HD video. That strikes me as a bit more of an upgrade than we saw from the 3G or 3GS. Hell, the camera alone is enough to get me to upgrade from my old 3G.

And then there's Siri, plus all the other software/service innovations like iCloud and iTunes Match, I haven't even bothered to mention. No, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the hardware Apple introduced yesterday, but Apple knows its customers aren't simply buying a hunk of glass and metal—they're buying an experience. And nobody delivers a better user experience than Apple.

So while the tech heads may be disappointed, I'm not planning on selling any of my (appropriately disclosed) stock.

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