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iPhone 4S: Just Apple Being Apple

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Oct 6, 2011 5:00 AM PT

It didn't take long for journalists, bloggers and commenters to start declaring the iPhone 4S an iFail, a disappointment, a wide-open opportunity for competitors. I was mildly surprised that we didn't see an iPhone 5, but in retrospect, I think I got caught up in the mass hysteria of rumors and supposition by bloggers and analysts alike. My nagging thoughts: Why would Apple deviate from its previous roadmap, where it set its basic strategy when it introduced the iPhone 3GS?

iPhone 4S: Just Apple Being Apple

The 3GS offered a nice boost but was skippable by 3G owners, particularly those still married to two-year contracts. It sold just fine, even after Apple introduced the iPhone 4.

But suppose the Android competition was getting too intense -- would that make Apple create an iPhone 5 with a whole new design? How about the fact that Steve Jobs was stepping down as CEO. Would that add pressure to wow?

Maybe it would, I thought. But in retrospect -- and surely hindsight is 20/20, I know -- Apple's move makes plenty of sense. It's just not what Apple fans wanted. And maybe that's the crux of it: While Apple sets out to delight its customers, the company doesn't rush headlong into new products just because it can. Actually, it seems as if Apple spends ages creating a solid design and then keeping that design on the market, giving it new paint and tires, for years. I'm sure that makes smart business sense, creating savings all up and down the product development and sales chains.

But I'm an Insatiable Consumer!

We're in a bit of a bind, here in America. As consumers, we want free or subsidized computers in our pockets that do everything, and that comes with two-year contracts so we don't have to pay market value for a phone upfront when we get it. How long could this little game last if we could upgrade every 12 or 16 months? I imagine the accounting would get pretty funky for AT&T and all the other carriers.

I don't know the answer to this question, but I'm guessing it's a factor. A phone owned by a customer for two years is inherently more profitable than a subsidized phone every 18 months or less.

Apple Does Only Enough to Retain Its Lead

If there's one thing I've noticed about Apple over the years, it's that it doesn't introduce super-cool new products unless it has to. Apple only releases new models after the older versions have gone beyond stale. Apple seems quite happy balancing its need to wow the world with making smart business moves with inventory that changes very little from year to year.

The tech world seems to think that Android's gaining numbers and the looming threat (next year) of a Windows 8 might be enough to spur Apple into new hardware development, but what Apple did instead is double-down on its entire ecosystem. To remain insanely profitable, Apple doesn't need an iPhone 5 yet. Apple will go into the holiday season selling and manufacturing millions and millions of iPhone 4S and iPhone 4 units. Heck, by creating an iPhone 4S -- instead of an iPhone 5 -- Apple just turned the US$99 iPhone 4 into this holiday season's most wicked gift. And best yet, these iPhone 4 owners won't feel like they're choosing a lousy phone compared to an "iPhone 5." I don't know that Apple is this smart when it comes to consumer sentiment, graphing disappointment of existing customers against potential converts, but if I could get away with selling old tech products for years, I would.

And Apple can and does.

Retaining the 'Lead'

How can I say that Apple has the smartphone "lead"? With so many Android phones hitting the market at all price points, some of which have superior hardware features over the iPhone 4 and 4S, Apple clearly leads in mindshare.

If you're at all tech-smart, if you're going shopping for a new smartphone, you have to specifically choose not to buy an iPhone. It's still there, lingering in the minds of everyone, even the Apple haters. Sure, non-techie consumers will stumble around on their own in various stores and find something that looks good at a decent price. These buyers are kind of like the people who walk into Staples or Office Depot and buy a laptop based on the yellow sales price tags and the size of the rebates associated with goods on the shelves. But if you care about features at all, you know about the iPhone, first and foremost. It's the baseline for measurement for every other phone out there.

So how did Apple change that baseline? At first glance, just with a few tweaks: a much-improved camera with a better lens, faster processor, and 1080p video recording. Right now, I take about 50 percent of my photos with my handy iPhone 4 and 50 percent with my big Canon camera with a sweet lens. As the camera experience improves on the iPhone, I'm sure I'll leave my Canon behind more and more often.

It has a faster A5 processor. That's nice, but not critical. Sure, I want a little more snap to my apps, but it's not like I'm walking around waiting on my iPhone 4 all the time. There's a new antenna design that should make voice and data hold and maintain better connections, which will no doubt please those suffering from issues or who want to use their iPhone 4S naked (without a case). Siri, Apple's voice-recognition assistant, sounds like a great feature, and it seems to have a particularly accurate implementation. I want it, along with the ability to use AirPlay to display my iPhone screen to my Apple TV-connected HDTV in my living room.

Investing in the Ecosystem

In the time Apple has not been delivering a new iPhone 5, you can't say the company has been taking a nap. Consider iOS 5 -- it boasts a couple hundred new features, including Notification Center, iMessage, Reminders, easy editing of photos, and a new shutter button using the up volume button. None of these new features are crazy fantastic, but taken together, they represent a big improvement in the overall usage of the iPhone 4 for the bulk of Apple's customers.

Better yet, to own an iPhone, you won't have to sync it with a PC or Mac at all, but if you do want to, you don't have to mess around with the USB cable -- you can sync wirelessly. Which brings up the biggest new deal of all: iCloud. You can store and back up your music, photos, documents ... and then snag them from anywhere. For more savvy users, it means you can also create and manage notes, calendars and reminders all through iCloud, quickly and easily. As for app developers, they can use iCloud, too. There's a lot of potential here, and Apple has plenty to do to get all of its current iPhone customers so totally immersed in the Apple ecosystem that they'll never want to leave, even for a sleek new Android phone.

When the Hoopla's Over

After the disappointment dies down, the proof will be in what consumers do this holiday season. Will they buy the iPhone 4S? I think so. By adding Sprint as a carrier, Apple is all but guaranteed to sell millions to Sprint customers who've been holding out. If consumers jump ship from the iPhone to a competing phone, Apple didn't have a lot of chance to hold them anyway. If I were Apple, I'd try to build a customer base of users who like the end-to-end package: hardware, software, app ecosystem and iCloud services. If customers are looking for the fastest phone using the fastest networks, I've got to say, as a business owner, I would probably let them go. Too fickle, hard to please, easy to sway to another shiny new competitive unit.

I mean, really it all comes down to this: Could Apple have designed a new iPhone 5? Without a doubt. Am I disappointed? Can't say that I am, even though I'm always game to see a svelte new design. Is the iPhone 4 a great phone? Yes. Still. 16 months later.

And the iPhone 4S is even better.

Looks to me like Apple is moving along according to plan.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.

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Which Big Tech CEO that testified at the Congressional Antitrust Hearing on July 29 is the most trustworthy?
Jeff Bezos of Amazon
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook
Sundar Pichai of Google
Tim Cook of Apple
All of them are equally trustworthy to some extent.
None of them are trustworthy whatsoever.
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