What a letdown. The iPhone 4S announced yesterday features the interesting Siri virtual assistant technology, which fulfills Apple chairman Steve Jobs's longtime goal of having a device that takes and acts on spoken orders. And the prosumer-level rear camera puts one more nail in the coffin for stand-alone digital cameras for the masses. But the iPhone 4S was no iPhone 5, though it's been treated that way sight unseen among journalists, bloggers, and fanboys for nearly a year.
After all that hype -- some of it outrageous -- Apple's announcement of basically a hardware upgrade fell flat. It didn't help that new CEO Tim Cook blathered for more than 20 minutes about rising Apple market share or that iOS chief Scott Fostall replayed his iOS 5 and iCloud presentation from June for another 25 minutes. Or that the Siri demos by Phil Schiller went on way too long (I tuned out after 5 minutes of essentially the same type of example). The nearly two-hour Apple "special event" was way overpadded for what turned out to be a moderate set of announcements.
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Early signs of an overhyped event
Last February, when the "iPhone 5" crescendo started in earnest, I warned people to expect a modest hardware upgrade, what I called the iPhone 4X, instead of an iPhone 5. I have no secret ins at Apple; I just relied on my long observations of Apple's behavior. It very rarely upends a new design just a year later, and the iPhone 4 was the most recent new design. It turned out the iPad 2 later that spring was an exception to that rule, but it's held true in iPods, Macs, and previous iPhones.
In fact, a look at the iPhone's evolution shows how conservative Apple is when it comes to radically redesiging its products. The same goes for the MacBook Pros, which are largely unchanged after three years, and even the MacBook Air, which is about as old a design. Apple is more apt to innovate inside the case once it's found a form it likes -- and it likes its carved-aluminum-block Macs and sandwiched-aluminum-and-glass iPhones very much.
The fact that Apple held the iPhone 5 -- er, 4S reveal at its Town Hall facility at Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters should have been a sign that this was not a revolutionary moment. It historically uses that venue for relatively minor announcements, reserving the larger Moscone conference center in San Francisco for the big stuff. That may change when its "spaceship" campus is completed several years hence, but in the meantime, I bet that Moscone will remain the "big deal" venue.
Ironically, that facility couldn't handle the (smaller number than usual of) journalists invited to relay to the world Apple's latest revelations. Thus, dozens of sites' "live" blogs went dark as the combination of the hall's limited Internet access and the blogging engines that the media sites tend to subscribe to choked (Cover It Live was the biggest loser in that game yesterday).