The iPhone 5 That Wasn’t

Apple announced the iPhone 4S on November 4th, and co-founder Steve Jobs passed away the very next day on November 5th. There has been an enormous amount of media coverage of both events, with various opinions tossed around. It many ways, it’s been over-analyzed, but I still feel like getting my opinion out there, clarified, and detailed for anyone who’s interested.

What I expected to be announced

When June rolled around, and no iPhone announcement was made, it was surprising. It was the first time Apple had deviated from their yearly refresh-cycle of products. Almost like clockwork, we expect new Apple products each year, at the same time.

To me, the delay indicated that Apple knew the market had not only caught-up, but in some ways leapfrogged the iPhone, and Apple was threatened with falling behind. So rather than release the iPhone 4S, as a moderate refresh, my intuition told me that they were ramping up development and production of the iPhone 5, in order to release it earlier than next year, but in time to overshadow the market, especially heading into the holidays. What other possible reason could there be for the delay? Nothing else seemed feasible.

Then, the whole “missing iPhone” story popped up again, mysteriously similar to the lost iPhone 4 that turned out to be real. This time, no images or details surfaced, but the fact that Apple was so intent on locating it (to the point of possibly having broken the law), it seemed obvious that there was a new, highly-secretive model being developed. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to tell that the iPhone 4S was anything other than an iPhone 4 without some detailed analysis and hands-on time. Again, all signs pointed to an iPhone 5 release.

Honestly, I was disappointed not to see an iPhone 5 announced. I obsessively keep up with technology blogs, and the rumors and speculation. Granted, until Apple announces a product, it doesn’t officially exist, and rumors can be completely wrong. However, based on past experience with these types of rumors, an all-new iPhone seemed all-but-certain.

I’m speaking of leaked case designs for the (supposed) iPhone 5, which indicated a radically re-designed device. I’m referring to the numerous website pages that got (supposedly) inadvertently posted with details about an iPhone 5. Even a highly-reputable case manufacturer posted high-resolution images of their iPhone 5 cases (again, accidentally). All of these leaks were consistent in the design of the iPhone 5. There were also pictures shown of “cellebrite” machines (those things they hook your phone up to, in order to transfer your contacts in the store) with iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 entries.

Until the morning of the “Let’s Talk iPhone” event, everything pointed to an announcement of two iPhones: an iPhone 4S (or lower-end iPhone 4), and an iPhone 5. To me, it made sense; Apple desperately needed to diversify their iPhone selection, to cater to both the higher-end market, and the lower-end. In the past, they’ve done this by offering the older model iPhone for less money. A low-end iPhone 4, a mid-range iPhone 4S, and a high-end iPhone 5 made a lot of sense, and would allow Apple to charge more for the iPhone, and sneak into that $299 price range that all the 4G phones are seeming to hit.

But reports changed quickly and dramatically that morning, and so, we got what Apple officially announced.

What Apple actually announced

Apple detailed their entire product line, updating only the iPod Nano, adding a white color option to the iPod Touch, and introducing the iPhone 4S. Though internally, the 4S has little in common with the current-gen iPhone 4, it feels underwhelming.

Consider that when iOS 5 releases, the only truly unique features to the 4S (other than the speed), are a better camera, and Siri. So let’s take a look at these two features, and why they’re not worth justifying the upgrade from the 4 to 4S:

Camera

The iPhone 4S will sport an 8 megapixel camera, with 1080p video recording. Apple talked up their camera improvements a lot during the presentation. But the iPhone 4 already has a pretty terrific camera. It’s certainly good enough for most of my photographic needs. Indeed, I’ve used it to document evidence for an automobile incident that was more than sufficient for the purpose. If I wanted professional-quality photos, I wouldn’t use my phone–I’d use a DSLR.

1080p video recording is nice, and I like that the internal gyroscope will help steady the video, but again, I’m not planning to use this for home movies. For capturing an impromptu memory, the 720p I get from my current iPhone 4 is just fine, thanks.

Siri Personal Assistant

The iPhone 4S’s voice-recognition, and Siri Personal Assistant certainly appears interesting, but seems like somewhat of a cop-out. Apple bought the company responsible for Siri, and rolled the application’s functionality into the iPhone. That’s not exactly what I consider true innovation; sure, they may have implemented it in a slick, easy-to-use way, but it’s still kind of a lazy way to get there, in my opinion.

Still, Siri is an interesting feature, and something that could potentially be very useful. In fact, it might change the way that people interact not only with their phones going forward, but with all technology in general. But is it enough for me to justify upgrading my iPhone 4? I’m afraid not. The jailbreak community will no doubt figure out a way to port this to the iPhone 4; should I desire it, I only need jailbreak my phone, and install it.

So the iPhone 4S is, to me, a marginal upgrade. There’s no compelling reason for me to feel the need to buy the new iPhone. Meanwhile, Android phones keep churning out with more and more features…

 

Why I’m disappointed

Apple has long been the innovator and technology-leader in the computer industry, and most certainly with the iPhone. They literally changed how the world views a cellphone, and how we interact with our phones. Until now, they have never failed to set the pace for their competition to follow. Most other companies have always strived to duplicate what Apple has done–and typically failed.

The iPhone 4S doesn’t continue that trend, however. With the exception of Siri, it’s an evolutionary upgrade, not revolutionary, like the previous iPhone releases (I know the 3GS was evolutionary, too). The fact that this phone was delivered four months late (iPhones have always come out in June), and then been such a moderate update is disappointing.

The cellphone market is rapidly changing, and growing. In the past year, there have been countless Android phones released, each one trying to top the others with high-end features. In comparison, there have been zero new iPhones released in the past 12 months. The announcement of the iPhone 4S comes sixteen months after the last iPhone was released. The cellphone market is much like dog years; sixteen months is an eternity between releases. To wait sixteen months and then release an incremental upgrade is realistically unacceptable.

 

What I’d like to see

The rumors of the iPhone 5 held such promise: a larger screen, aluminum back, tapered and wider body, and dramatically thinner. The mockups based on the leaked case designs were gorgeous, and I immediately wanted one.

Unfortunately, Apple chose not to release that phone–if it exists at all (I’m still convinced it does). Sadly, the iPhone 4S is just barely competitive with the current market, feature-wise. The hardware is still beautiful, solidly built, and consistent, but I wanted more.

Specifically, I wanted that larger screen. The current size isn’t bad, but with the appeal of the much larger displays on competing phones, it’s hard to justify sticking with the smaller screen for a new iPhone. I also wanted NFC built into the iPhone. NFC (Near Field Communication) is still very new, and a fledgling technology, but it’s expected growth is set to explode and take over the transaction payment market, in much the way debit cards did (though quite possibly even faster). Not too far into the future, it will be possible to stop carrying credit cards, debit cards, or a wallet altogether; all of that will be in your phone. To have this left out of the iPhone is inexcusable, and again, not market-leading. It will be interesting to see if Apple chooses to include this at all in the future. After all, they are known for shunning what they don’t particularly care for (like Blu-ray, and Flash).

I also want to see a 4G iPhone. There are technical reasons why the iPhone is still living with 3G hardware inside, and much of them are the same reason that they didn’t move to 3G with the first iPhone: battery life. Apple claims that too many design principles would be compromised by using the existing 4G technology that’s available. It still doesn’t excuse the fact that by not being 4G, the iPhone 4S is still inherently behind the current level of technology. 4G is all the rage (at least in the marketing world) in cellphones. iPhone users are not always the most technically savvy, but generally want the best from their phone, and are willing to pay for it; Apple’s lost a great opportunity to capitalize on the burgeoning 4G market here.

There are countless other tiny improvements I’d like to see, but none that are the showstoppers I’ve listed above. I guess I’ll just have to wait for a real iPhone 5 to be released.

Will there be an iPhone 5?

But will there even be an iPhone 5? When the late Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 4, he called it “the fourth-generation iPhone”, which of course, it was. With the iPhone 4S technically being the fifth-generation, that would logically make the next iPhone the iPhone 6, since it will be sixth-generation. I for one am ready to ditch my disappointment over the lost iPhone 5, and turn my anticipation to an iPhone 6, which surely should be amazing.

The biggest question now for all involved is: when can we expect it to come out? With the alteration of their release pattern, and the letdown that was the iPhone 4S, who knows? Apple certainly isn’t telling. Maybe this was Apple’s way of saying, “don’t believe everything you read.”