Apple's disappointments and successes with the iPhone 4S announcement

Apple's disappointments and successes with the iPhone 4S announcement
OK, we've all had some time to breathe, digest and assess. The constant bombardment of Apple iPhone rumors is over for a couple months or so (until the iPad 3 rumors ramp up.) We have seen the first big announcement since Steve Jobs' retirement, we've seen what Tim Cook brings to the table and how he handles things. We know what the iPhone 4S is and isn't. The trouble is the same every year with the iPhone announcement: expectations ruin the moment. Being as deep into the rumor mill as we have to be around here, we'll admit that it affected us and made a rational observation of the announcement almost impossible. But, we've had time to reset, and the bottom line is this: the iPhone 4S may not be everything we wanted, but it still looks like a great phone. 

Managing expectation

The blame on this one has to go both ways. We are obviously in the business of reporting, so the rumor mill comes through us and we have to pass along anything that seems credible (and maybe things that don't seem so credible, so long as they are amusing.) But, a lot of the blame does go to Apple on this. Apple knew what it was building all along, but said nothing as more and more reports came out about the iPhone 5 and major redesigns based on multiple reports of leaked case designs (we had about a dozen reports regarding iPhone cases). We understand that Apple doesn't like to reveal anything before the announcement, but in this case (puns never intended, so don't ask again) Apple was just setting itself up for a fall.

The vast majority of the rumors were focused on a possible redesign, even something as relatively minor (by Apple's standards) of increasing the screen size. Apple has been working on the iPhone 4S for a long time, and knew that there would be no redesign, so by letting these rumors fester, Apple was giving consumers, pundits, and investors a focal point for their disappointment when it turned out that the new iPhone would look identical to the last gen. For Apple to not manage those expectations is a huge failure, because it colors all of the other announcements, and most of those other announcements were actually pretty solid. Although, many of those other announcements had their thunder taken away by being rehashed news from the iOS 5 announcement at WWDC. The entire announcement would have been far more satisfying had we not known all we do about iOS 5. 

On the other side of the coin, we (both those of us in the media, and those of you who follow this type of news) should have done better to manage our expectations. And, we also have to be better at managing our language. People are far too quick to claim that this announcement was a "failure" for Apple, but that is nowhere near correct. Apple didn't "fail", it simply disappointed on some aspects, notably the hardware design, because of the ridiculous hype machine that always surrounds an iPhone event. For example, people seem to be disappointed at the hardware specs on the iPhone 4S, but the only things we can legitimately be disappointed with is the lack of a true 4G radio, and possibly the size of the screen, although that is more a matter of opinion than anything else. Many people have no problems at all with the screen size of the iPhone. However, there is no way that we can be disappointed with the other hardware available in the iPhone 4S. 

Re-evaluating the iPhone 4S

Apple's history to make that happen has been to alternate years to release major features one year, and speed increases the next. The iPhone 3G and iPhone 4 pushed forward features. With the iPhone 3G, the major influence was in setting the $199 price which became the industry standard. With the iPhone 4, the killer feature was the screen resolution, which many competing phone still can't match, although qHD has been picking up steam. Then, on odd years, we get the speed updates with the iPhone 3GS and now 4S. So, on odd years like this one, we can't really expect more than iterative bumps outside of the speed updates. One major thing to keep in mind when evaluating the iPhone 4S is this: for you, this may be a device that has to last 2 years, but for Apple, this is just a device that needs to be competitive for one year. This update is out of the pattern because it took 16 months to come rather than the normal 12, but even so that's not that far off the normal schedule. 

We've been hearing a lot of complaints to the effect of "after a year and a half, all you get is dual-core and an 8MP camera?" Well, yes, because what exactly could you expect? Sure, dual-core CPUs have become fairly ubiquitous, but Apple couldn't really top that from a numbers standpoint because quad-core chipsets simply don't exist in consumer devices yet. The A5 is one of the best available, and by the time quad-core has begun to infiltrate the market, Apple will have the A6 ready to compete on that level. Also, we have to remember that Apple creates unified systems, which means that the OS is more optimized for the hardware than other OSes. Whereas Google has to make sure that the new version of Android runs on tons of different hardware of all levels, Apple doesn't have that issue. Apple has to make sure that the newest OS runs perfectly on the newest hardware, runs well on the last gen hardware, and just runs on hardware from 2 generations back whether or not it runs well. With that system, it may be a dual-core chipset like we've seen in plenty of other devices, but it will be designed specifically to run in tandem with iOS 5, and that often leads to performance on par with competing devices with better specs. 

With the camera, we all should understand by now, MP rating is not the full indicator of camera quality. Even at 5MP, the iPhone 4 camera made a run at it against 8MP competition in our blind photo competition, and while it didn't take the overall title, it was voted the best quality for outdoor shots. This time around, Apple has upped the quality, and added a better lens, so it's likely that once again the iPhone will have one of the better cameras found on a smartphone. Of course, the camera quality isn't the only factor in this either, there is also the camera app, and Apple still has one of the best camera apps around, and iOS 5 adds nice features like crop, rotate, auto-enhance, and red-eye removal. They aren't power user controls, but that's not who the app is designed for, and those options don't exist in Android anyway. The stock Android camera app is nothing special to say the least. Of course, various Android manufacturers have put together more impressive camera apps, but Apple's offering is certainly competitive with the best of those choices. 

Apple may be playing catch up with some features like Twitter integration, WiFi syncing and OTA updates, but at least for a week until we see Ice Cream Sandwich, Apple isn't running behind on everything. We give Android credit on a lot of things that really aren't part of the core OS. Apple's Safari browser is far more feature rich than the stock Android browser, which still doesn't even have tabbed browsing. This is something that's especially likely to change with ICS, but right now, by far the best browsers on Android are 3rd party solutions like Dolphin or XScope, not stock. The same idea applies to the Twitter integration, which again isn't an inherent part of Android, but rather something you get once you install the a Twitter app. The point is that Google leaves a lot of features up to 3rd parties, while Apple tries to do it all alone. That means that Apple has to be more focused on what features make it and what doesn't. 

Apple's Core Competencies

As with any company, Apple has to stick with its core competencies, the things it does better than anyone. For Apple, those things are: design, unified systems, and marketing. While other companies will use time to push forward new features, Apple chooses a limited set of features and makes sure that each feature meets those rigorous design standards, and each fits into the whole ecosystem of Apple products. Then Apple makes sure the right message is filtered out to the media and other marketing paths.

Apple wanted the main takeaways of the announcement to be in the speed increase and in Siri. The speed increase, as we've mentioned, is acceptable and as good as we can expect right now. And looking at what Siri promises to be, it doesn't exactly look like the "world changing" feature that Apple has tried to make it out to be, especially given that both voice dictation and Voice Actions have been in Android for quite a while now. Also, while having a logically-thinking and personified digital assistant in the form of Siri sounds great, its practicality in real-world usage remains to be seen. On the more practical side of things, you'll at least be able to use it as a dictation tool, saving you the need of using the on-screen QWERTY keyboard (when you're alone, at least). The trouble is that Siri will be a great tool for certain uses, but it still may not be the best solution for text input. Text input has always been the number one issue that needs to be tackled with smartphones, because touch typing is cramped, uncomfortable and slow. Out in the real world with cars and trains and other noise, voice input isn't always that practical. Text input is still the default, so although Apple has the best touch typing keyboard around and even now with Siri for voice dictation, the fastest text input on smartphones still belongs to gesture keyboards like Swype and FlexT9 (which also gives you Nuance-powered voice dictation.) There are many times and places where voice dictation isn't practical due to noise, or even just your comfort level in dictating in public, but text input is still the primary input for our digital devices. 

Apple can't do everything. We should know this, but given the time it takes between updates, we often forget that the company still has limited resources. So, when Apple spends a lot of its time and resources on design and unifying various Apple products, this limits what updates can be made available. We tend to focus on the bigger ticket items, but there are a lot of smaller features that all add up to a larger cohesive whole. For example, we focus on iCloud and its similarities to various other products by different companies, but we don't look at how many little hooks Apple has built through so many of its products to insure that iCloud runs seamlessly from iPhone to iPad to Mac. And, that's another thing we tend to forget: Apple rarely releases beta products or products that are known to have major bugs. That's why when it does happen, like with the infamous "grip of death" on the iPhone 4, the news is so huge. In general, Apple products are magic boxes that somehow just work, and that takes a lot of effort on Apple's part. 

Of course, even with these limitations and the general focus that Apple takes with products, that still doesn’t completely explain the odd amount of fumbling of the announcement. The fumbles came with the last of Apple's core competencies that we mentioned: marketing. Apple has always been one of the best companies around at manipulating the media, using the power of its incredibly loyal following, and owning the message of every announcement. Unfortunately, those were the biggest missteps of the announcement. As we mentioned before, Apple failed to manage expectations in the media and in its loyal army of followers, and that led to its complete inability to own the message of the announcement, because everyone was automatically disappointed in seeing the 4S hardware design (or lack thereof). 

How it could have been better

As we see it, there are three ways that Apple could have handled this in a way that could have completely changed how we perceived the announcement:

1) Apple could have foregone the iPhone 4 Verizon edition, and released the iPhone 4S on the normal schedule in June. With less time for the rumor mill to do its work, and keeping to the normal schedule, people likely would have been more accepting of the incremental increase. Given that the A5 chipset was in the iPad 2, which launched in March, the hardware should have been there to make the launch work. The only reasons this couldn't have/didn't happen are because Apple likely wanted to have the iPhone out for the competitive holiday season, and not leave it to Google and the Nexus. And, maybe iOS 5 wasn't ready for release that early. If that was the case...

2) Apple should have withheld the iOS 5 reveal from WWDC as we mentioned, and bundle that announcement with the iPhone 4S announcement. This would have made a more full announcement, and would have precluded the need for silly filler like the Cards app. And, it would have made the entire announcement more interesting to have all of the new features announced at one big event. 

3) The least likely would have been Apple announcing a better killer feature. If instead of Siri, Apple had unveiled a gesture keyboard, that would have been a killer feature that could have made us forget about the non-design of the 4S. An announcement of a big Google Maps update with some of the many features that have had Android pulling away could have helped, but obviously Apple can't be using Google products as killer features any more. Even the addition of widgets, or adding an extra half an inch to the screen size probably would have added that extra spark.

Overall, even though the iPhone 4S is a solid phone and iOS 5 has respectable updates, the announcement fell flat because it just couldn't make good on all of the expectation. Even right to the end, people expected there to be something more to it all, but it just never came. The biggest trouble with the announcement is likely the same problem that exists with every Apple announcement: the people who care the most want to see revolutionary features that blow everything else out of the water, but that's not what Apple is going for. Apple wants to create a great experience for everyone, and the majority of "everyone" are people who don't know much or don't care much about the most hardcore features. Knowing that, Apple needs to do better to manage expectations, and failing that, needs to come up with more compelling features to announce, because although the iPhone 4S should be a great phone near the top of the heap over the next year, it isn't anything especially new. Siri seems to encompass the entire event: Apple wanted to paint it as "world-changing", but it really wasn't. Maybe Apple just didn't handle it properly, or maybe this is the fundamental difference between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook: Steve always gave you that "one more thing" you didn't expect, and Tim gives you exactly what you should expect and nothing more. 

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