iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle

iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle
The tech world moves in strange ways. It seems as if there can be long periods where things move fairly slowly, then in no time at all, everything jumps up a level. On a competitive level, we always assume that the best will be up against the best, but that's not always true, especially with the update cycle in play with mobile devices. To break tech website taboo and use a sports metaphor, we want to see the number one starters facing off against each other, but it has felt for the last couple of years that not everyone is bringing their best, and we think it may just be a simple rotational problem. 

Whether the comparison is fair or not, and we've talked about that issue as well, tech enthusiasts and media heads tend to pit the iPhones against the Google Nexus devices. It makes sense because we can't easily pit the iPhone against whatever is perceived as the best Android device, because that is constantly changing, plus there are issues with added features from manufacturer overlays, etc. Nexus devices are made to be pure and to be Google's version of a carrot to lead Android partners towards certain features. In that way, the Nexus can often serve as an example for the whole Android ecosystem both in current technology (Nexus hardware) and future technology (Nexus software, ie the major Android OS update. So, for the sake of simplicity, we'll just use the iPhone and Nexus as examples in this argument. 

We as consumers are often put on 2 year contracts through our wireless carriers, and this constant, and regular cycling has an impact on the upgrades that all manufacturers decide to make. Each company will still decide the end rate of innovation, based on its goals for profit over cost-of-development, but each company must decide how to best present upgrades for users who are in this cycle. 

The disappointing announcements

In their own ways, both the iPhone 4S and the Nexus S were disappointments when announced. Many people were disappointed with the recent announcement of the iPhone 4S. We broke down the whole announcement, but it boiled down to a few things:

  1. People expected a hardware redesign and didn't get one
  2. There was no real standout killer new feature
  3. The overall feel of the announcement was more subdued and slow

Ultimately, the iPhone 4S is still a solid device, but just not what people expected. This was very similar to what happened last year with Google's announcement of the Nexus S and Gingerbread, which disappointed for a few reasons including: 

  1. Lack of a significant hardware upgrade
  2. Lack of expected features (SD card slot, HSPA+ on T-Mobile)
  3. No killer feature in Gingerbread

Some of the disappointments were somewhat unavoidable. For instance, people were hoping that the Nexus S would be the first device on the market with a dual-core CPU, but those didn't start hitting the market until February of this year, and Google wanted the Nexus S to be released for the holiday season of last year. Also, the lack of an SD card slot was annoying, but not terrible because of the large internal storage available. More understandable were the hopes for a qHD screen, but Google kept to its mission of pushing AMOLED, both in the hardware, and in the majors feature of Gingerbread, which were a darker theme made to give OLED-screen devices better battery life, and a new file system to encourage larger internal storage in future devices.

The trouble with all of these criticisms is that they leave out a big part of the update process for both the iPhone and Nexus devices: the contract cycle. 

The turnover cycle

The main thing that we do wrong when judging these updates is to compare each with the last device released. So, we compared the Nexus S with the Nexus One and didn't see enough improvement; and similarly, we compared the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 4, and were disappointed because we wanted more of an improvement. This is the wrong way to go about it because, like it or not, the standard 2-year mobile contract from many major carriers dictates the update cycle of these phones. 

Unlike other manufacturers and other platforms, the iPhone and Nexus devices are released once a year, but still have to hit a 2-year turnover cycle. In general, updates are progressing at a speed which pushes users to upgrade after two years, both because of the contract turnover, and also as a built-in mechanism to allow for better updates. Unlike the PC world, where software updates have to be compatible with much older hardware, mobile platforms can more easily make hardware that is 3+ years old obsolete, and expect users to upgrade. 

Because of this, we should be comparing the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 3GS, because those are the users whose contracts are coming to an end, and will be looking to upgrade. The iPhone 4S wasn't designed for iPhone 4 users, because they are at most halfway through a 2 year contract. That's why there was no big hardware update, because Apple doesn't expect many people to break contracts to update to the iPhone 4S, and if you don't already have an iPhone 4, you probably don't care as much that the hardware didn't change (unless you were really holding out for a bigger screen.) 

On the other side, we shouldn't have been comparing the Nexus S to the Nexus One, because even though most Nexus One owners weren't on contract, most weren't going to pony up another $500 (or more depending on where you live) less than a year after buying a phone to upgrade to the Nexus S. The Nexus S was made more to draw in users whose contract was nearing an end, like those with the HTC Magic, and those users were more than happy with the Nexus S given what they were upgrading from. 

Managing expectations

Managing expectations is a theme that we've touched on a few times recently, but it's a very important idea to keep in mind. A one-year turnaround for major releases is almost unheard of in the world of technology, because it is incredibly difficult to conceive, design, and build a new set of compelling features every year, even for companies as big as Apple and Google. And, of course Google has help building the hardware for its Nexus phones, while Apple manages the entire process.  The 2-year turnover cycle is making it so each year there is an upgrade, but the upgrade is targeted to an older set of users than we tend to think, and right now the cycles are in conflict. 

As always, we have to remember also that Apple is a hardware company first, so its major updates are always design oriented, while Google is a software company, so its major updates are more software based. Apple's upgrade cycle right now is putting the major redesign and big updates on even years: the iPhone 3G in 2008, the iPhone 4 in 2010, and the iPhone 5 (which will likely have the hardware redesign, and true 4G radio that we want) in 2012. Whereas, Google's major updates have come on odd years (or close enough) since the Nexus One was targeting holiday season 2009 and Froyo was a huge system-wide performance update thanks to the JIT compiler, and now we're getting the Nexus Prime in 2011 with Ice Cream Sandwich. So, whereas the Gingerbread update was lacking killer features last year, the rumors have a lot of new features on tap for Ice Cream Sandwich from the well-known, like the Honeycombesque UI to unifying tablets and phones, to the lesser known, which are rumored to be a lot more hooks into the system allowing developers to do a lot more cool stuff especially in hooking into Google's online services including possibly the fabled Google Drive (aka Docs rebranding). 

If these features do turn out to be true, the Nexus Prime may be seen as a success even though its hardware update isn't too much different than the iPhone 4S, which brought a similar dual-core CPU, and what's rumored to be the same GPU as the Prime. Although the Prime is packing the major display update that the iPhone brought last year with the first so-called retina display. Of course, therein lies the trouble with the comparisons that are obviously going to be coming next week. Apple has been splitting the hardware updates, with a redesign one year and bigger speed boost the next, but Google is bringing a redesign every year, but pushing all of the features with this redesign. The comparisons to the last generation have skewed the perception of each release, but in the end both devices have screens with similar pixel density, dual-core CPUs, possibly the same GPU, and likely similar cameras (assuming the Prime camera is close to the Samsung Galaxy S II). The big difference comes in that the Nexus Prime is expected to have 4G radios in all the models, and we do have to wait and see what ICS has to offer before really making the argument over software feature comparisons.


Ultimately, it seems that the best options may be exactly what Apple and Google are doing, which is to build for the future one year, and give the pay-off. Apple has a major redesign, then works on more "future" products, like iCloud and how that hooks into iOS. And, Google adds the JIT compiler which makes all phones faster with Froyo, then pushes "future" tech like the EXT4 file system in Gingerbread, and now is back to current with ICS looking to bridge all phones with all tablets. 

The iPhone 4S was somewhat of a disappointment, just like the iPhone 3GS, because when it comes to Apple, people expect a new design, but given the 2-year contract cycle, it makes no sense for Apple to put out a new design every year. Similarly, the Nexus S was somewhat of a disappointment, because it didn't push the hardware or software forward enough, but it seems like the Nexus Prime may do both. The trouble is that next year, it's very likely that the roles will be reversed, and we'll see the major iPhone redesign that we expect, whereas Android Jelly Bean may not have as much to offer as Ice Cream Sandwich has planned, and the hardware for both phones is likely to be similar with quad-core CPUs and all the other bells and whistles that will be standard by the fall of next year. 

When that time comes, we shouldn't be comparing the iPhone 5 to the 4S, or the next Nexus device to the Nexus Prime, because that's not how the update cycle works. The iPhone 5 will be designed for iPhone 4 users, and the next Nexus will be designed for those coming off of Nexus S contracts. The ebb and flow of update cycles is pushing at different times for each company right now. Many consumers and media heads are more interested on a year-over-year upgrade for devices, but Apple and Google, just like all manufacturers, are more concerned with 2-year update cycles. We need to learn that this pattern may actually be for the best right now, because it gives those coming off contracts a worthy update while not angering those in the middle of their contracts with an update that's too big. If we don't like the pattern, the fault lies with the carriers' insistence on 2-year contracts, not with upgrade speed or quality from manufacturers.

(Side note: thanks to all the late-night commenters (by US Eastern time clock), you guys were instrumental in the editing of this article.)

Related phones

iPhone 4s
  • Display 3.5" 640 x 960 pixels
  • Camera 8 MP / 0.3 MP VGA front
  • Processor Apple A5, Dual-core, 800 MHz
  • Storage 64 GB
Nexus S
  • Display 4.0" 480 x 800 pixels
  • Camera 5 MP / 0.3 MP VGA front
  • Processor Samsung Exynos 3, Single core, 1000 MHz
  • Storage 16 GB
  • Battery 1500 mAh(6.00h 3G talk time)



1. isheep unregistered

This article really prove that PA is isheep. Do we really need an article to tell that i4s is still good if we use 3gs.... NO!!!! For non-isheep, what we care, is.... our 3gs contract just finish. and we compare the i4s to android.... which is make the i4s FAILED. So, no excuse.... i4s is good, but NOT really good compared to competitor.

4. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I'd appreciate if you actually bothered to read the article before commenting. Given that you commented 2 minutes after it was posted, I find it hard to believe you actually read the arguments before lashing out.


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

I have read articles others have written on other websites with the same general idea of this. But your article is by far the best I have read. Your points are well spoken and unlike some idiots who don't know how to read, you aren't picking favorites. You are pointing out the facts fairly and unbiased. Articles like these are the reasons I keep coming back to this website because they are such excellent reads. And it is damn true, the Nexus S compared to the original Nexus One was very disappointing. Sure it got a slightly improved 4 inch super amoled display, but the specs were almost the same other than that. 1ghz processor, same amount of RAM, Gingerbread was a nice improvement but nothing ground breaking. And in the end the same could be said about the iphone 4S. I am really hoping they don't drop the ball with the Nexus Prime. Two things made me decide to leave IOS, first was the screen size, I love my 4.5 inch epic touch. The second was apple's stubborn force you to use itunes only to sync music, photos, etc. It's really a pain in the butt after a while where I can just hook my android phone up to my computer and drag and drop files onto my computer and vise versa. I get it, apple wants security but IMO they over do it. I would go back to IOS in a heart beat if they actually took a risk and made a 4+ inch iphone with expandable memory. But I know that probably won't be happening.

31. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Thanks! Glad to have you coming back.

94. isheep unregistered

Google nexus is not intended for wide audience. It's a devices for developer to get a taste of android. For non-iphone lover / android lover, this article is like trying to miss-inform the one that less informed. i.e. If I own iphone 3gs, and i'm a girl (stereotype?). and i want to upgrade the i4s now, reading this article like reading a "the i4s is great, even google android is doing worse". so, I rate this article as NON-INFORMATIVE and MISSLEADING, and just GIVING APPLE an EXCUSE, and TRYING TO JUSTIFY WHAT'S APPLE DID WRONG (isheep)

30. TrollingMotor

Posts: 9; Member since: Oct 06, 2011

Great Article Michael! Didn't realized that authors actually followed up on the comments on their articles. Especially ones left by people with their head in their behinds such as comment number 1.

32. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Our PA regulars have told me that I may be an exception in this case. I don't know how active other writers are in the comments.

54. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 2010

You are an exception. Just check the participation rate of your compatriots with their articles. BTW, +n on kudos for a great clear article on what is driving the upgrade cycle in the phone business.


Posts: 3131; Member since: Jan 12, 2010

Yes, this is why a lot of PA users like Michael. He actually talks back to the users while the others just seem to "do their jobs" so to speak.

36. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

As I've said before, I can't speak for other writers, but I get a lot of value from you guys. You help me be better at my job. So, thanks!

39. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

aww gorsh, your welcome michael. :) if you noticed i even started spelling your name right.. even though google spell check keeps yelling at me for it.. lol

45. Thump3rDX17

Posts: 2160; Member since: May 10, 2010

i do disagree with you sometimes Micheal but you do raise good points. you help us all grow as we all help you grow.

58. isheep unregistered

yes, i do read your article before posting... You were justifying apple mistake by showing that google did that too. while in fact, android is not only google nexus. and google nexus is kind of developer devices. in real, apple is competing with HTC, samsung, SonyErricson. and apple 1 ring to rule them all, i mean, 1 device to rule them all strategies is only good when the competitor don't really have a product to compare. Right now, android manufacture is doing every size that is.... 3.2", 3.5" 3.7"/3.8", 4.0", 4.2"/4.3", 4.5", 5.0" you also seems to justify apple mistake/judgement by saying that i4s is for 3gs user.... it does in some sense, but at 3gs time, the android is still infant, now, android is mature. btw, why i say PA is isheep. because in every article i read in PA, PA always try to make apple a winner, even in bad spot. example, in camera test... where is N8 to compare with other??? no N8 as the best phone, but iphone4 is there??? PA got their excuse as i4 is one of the best selling devices in the US, but still, to anyone that expect a neutral article, we feel that PA article reflect the iSheep iWorship kind of article. and PS. forgive my bad english, i'm not english literate, i self learn english.

60. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

I understand what you're saying, but as I tried to say at the beginning, it's hard to compare the iPhone with the entire Android ecosystem. Because Google tries to use the Nexus device as an example of how other manufacturers should build phones, I think it can be used as a good stand in to compare with the iPhone. We're not looking at sales, or even comparing features in this piece. I just wanted to talk about the update cycles and how fast or slow they are. I tried my best to not favor Apple, and I'm sorry if that's how you read it, but that wasn't my intent. This is an issue that all companies have to deal with, I just wanted to use the two market leaders as examples of this 2-year cycle issue.

63. isheep unregistered

ok. i guess i'm too hars on you too. i'm sorry about that. i see your point, and you see my point too. so i'm coolll... :))))

66. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Cool! Thanks for the feedback. It helped me realize I needed to explain myself better in the article.

75. Truth

Posts: 62; Member since: Jul 15, 2009

Michael's articles are the best for unbiased reading. They are by far the best on PA and probably on the web. They provide facts for both sides and lets the reader make up their own mind. When you try to please everybody there will always be somebody not so pleased. Facts of life. Keep up the good work. Your pieces are well written and should be the primer for all tech articles.

82. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Wow, thanks man. That is one of the best compliments I've ever gotten.

86. isheep unregistered

i'm glad this end with happy ending :)

92. 10aera

Posts: 42; Member since: Mar 02, 2011

I don't really think that Google wants to set an example on how Android phones should be done. Google just wants to have a phone good enough as to be introducing its newest Android version. Of course they look for a good piece of hardware, but software is Google's main concern. Moreover, Google knows that Android's hardware come and goes as water. One day you have a single core cellphone and three months later there's a dual core (the same with camera sensors, screen sizes, etc.) Therefore Google knows that Android fans will never be dissapointed for hardware specs the way Apple fans do, because wether or not the Nexus meets fans' expectations, there will always be an Android phone, sooner or later, that will fullfil Android fans' desires. The 2year cycle doesn't apply to Android fans because Google's responsibility goes with software only. Apple, on the opposite, has an obligation that goes beyond Google's one: the piece of hardware that Apple gives to its customers needs not only to fullfil the wishes and expectations of their fans for a whole year, but also the competition brought by other platforms and pieces of hardware. Moreover, if a breakthrough is part of a cycle, then the missing of a single year can be understandable on the iPhone 4s' side, but lacking real common hardware characteristics that other manufacturers are used to have, just as 4+" screens, it's a real sin.

96. isheep unregistered

yes.... this is what i meant...

108. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

Google has always used the Nexus devices to push certain features that it wants to see more in other Android handsets, though sometimes those changes don't filter out. With the Nexus One, Google wanted faster processors (it was the first with a 1 GHz CPU), and AMOLED screens. The Nexus S tried to push larger internal storage, better GPUs, AMOLED (again), and NFC. And, the Prime is pushing HD screens, AMOLED (again), NFC (again), larger internal storage (still), TI processors, and possibly other features that we just don't know about yet. Google uses the Nexus devices as both representative of the Android ecosystem as a whole, since it is the de facto flagship device. But, it also uses the Nexus to push certain features that it wants to optimize the system for.

121. 10aera

Posts: 42; Member since: Mar 02, 2011

Yes, but most probably no Android fan will be as dissapointed as Apple fans, becausd eventhough Google may impulse some features, the specific characteristicswill not reighn exclusively for all Android users for a wole year since many other phones from other manufacturers will arrive with similar and improved specs. For example, if Google chooses to present a 4" screen, and a 5mpx camera with IceCream, those will not matter to Androi fans because we know that sooner or later Samsung, Htc, etc will bring a cellphone with IceCream with a +4.5" screen and 8mpx or 12mpx cameras. Google may introduce some features, but Android fans are not limited by them. Apple faces a total different situation because they do not use their phone to introduce just a couple of features, but to stay competitive as well and to atract and conserve customers for a whole year.

7. iankellogg

Posts: 155; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

You completely missed the point of the article.

65. isheep unregistered

my first impression on reading this article is kind of isheep defending why he need to upgrade from 3gs to i4s.... because it's better than 3gs... while in fact... there were lots more other phone is better than i4s. so, i don't feel like slow update cycle, managing expectation, targeting the 3gs..... i feel that this is an excuse... excuse.... excuse.... to increase the i4s sale

8. Lucas777

Posts: 2137; Member since: Jan 06, 2011

haha if u rnt completely blind u wud see the nexus s in the title, huge pictures of it, and many references to android… please dont be stupid… and michael i think you mean the iphone 5 will be designated for iphone 4 users in the last paragraph?

14. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

You're totally right. Thanks for the catch!

27. Lucas777

Posts: 2137; Member since: Jan 06, 2011

no prob. thats what readers are for!

42. remixfa

Posts: 14605; Member since: Dec 19, 2008

To GalaxyS users, Gingerbread has a major update. It forces filesytems to EXT4 and off of that older crappy RFS system that samsung put on the 2.1 enabled galaxyS at launch. The power difference is so substancial its part of the reason I see no reason to upgrade from an SGS1 to anything other than an SGS2 or a prime. I score as high or higher in nearly all benchmarks compared to the Sensation with a 1.2ghz snapdragon. Of course, dual threading things like web browsing do pop up ever so slightly on the sensation since it uses both cores for that.

61. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

But again, that's a "future" feature designed to push manufacturers into building bigger internal storage on Android devices, that wasn't a feature that would help older phones in any way.

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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