Apple iPhone 4S: What Makes Sense?

The iPhone 4S was announced last week, with the usual amount of hype surrounding it. No doubt you’ve read through the specs and dozens of blogs by now. What was interesting about this year’s iPhone was that it was unusually out of phase, being 4 months later than previous years. This of course, whipped the tech media up into a frenzy, with predictions to suit. The reactions (many negative) by the tech media and public were lukewarm, eerily similar to the 3GS release (bar a few keyword changes). I’ve gathered my thoughts into two parts:

* What makes sense about the 4S:

#1 Profit – Apple’s goal is the same as every other company – to make money, not to cater to everybody’s whims. The iPhone4 is still selling very well, even nearly 18 months after it’s announcement, therefore – milk it dry. Early estimates are the 4S costs just $203 to build, substantially less than the 4 at release. They know that people will buy the 4S no matter what, just as with the Antenna issue when the iPhone4 was released. The fact that Siri is only available on the 4S (despite being available as an app prior to the launch of the 4S, only to be removed and it’s servers brought down), speaks volumes about Apple’s determination to enforce obsolescence in it’s products. This of course is negated if Siri has since switched from having cloud-based processing to device-based processing, which validates the requirement for a 4S.
#2 Tradition- To release substantial changes year to year would be violating #1. The staggered approach has worked in the past in generating a balance between progress and adoption. This is excellent for carriers who sold the 3GS on a two-year contract, the 4S is aimed squarely at these customers. Also interesting to note that the 4S is the 5th iPhone, thus the iPhone 5 will be the 6th, breaking mathematical convention (though the 3G was the 2nd).
#3 Rumours – The rumours were rampant about all kinds of technology (such as LTE / NFC / larger screen), but Apple has traditionally implemented technologies which have been tried and tested, and can be quickly adopted into widespread use. Also, it’s important to note that in a vacuum without competition, you can be fairly sure the 4S would have released mid-year, and there would be far less groaning about it (see points below).
#4 Price – Incremental upgrades that leverage the phone’s best advantages (such as it’s brilliant camera upgrades), whilst providing downwards price pressure through reductions on lower-end devices allow Apple to compete more competitively on a market-share basis and emerging markets. This also explains Apple’s recent strong pushes into markets they have traditionally fallen behind in (ie. China/Europe).
#5 Shared components – The A5 chip is the core of the 4S, which has been available to Apple in finished form since early 2011 and used in the iPad2. It only makes sense to re-use this chip in the 4S instead of leapfrogging it to something better.

* What counts against it?

#1 Competition – The fact is, things are VERY different now than they were when the 3G was around. The competition is much fiercer, competitors have dual-core CPUs, 4G handsets, luscious large screens for a while and have more or less closed / exceeded the gap the earlier iPhones had. Consumers, even the more ardently fervent ones, cannot deny that by today’s standards, the 4S is technically inferior, out of the gate (especially in relation to screen size). Consumer expectations have shifted and the iPhone is being outsold, platform to platform, across the globe, that’s what competition does. What keeps the iPhone afloat is not technical specs, it’s ecosystem and user experience.
#2 Technology – Apple is new to cloud-based storage / synchronisation, but this is what people expect these days to work flawlessly and without software/wires. Their acquired technology through Siri has been done on Android since late 2010 (albeit not as refined), not to mention third party options. Find my Friends, is essentially Google Latitude (around since early 2009). It’s also interesting to note how many iPhone users believe Apple invented and maintains the often-advertised Maps app (notice how Google Maps is known as Maps across the ecosystem).
#3 CEO – Tim Cook is not a salesman like Jobs was (RIP). The differences are already apparent, relying more on numbers and specs of devices than the pure emotion of his predecessor. However, Apple’s other cash cows (tablets / computers) all supplement each other. It will be quite a while before any leadership insufficiencies manifest themselves in the bottom line.
#4 Pixel Density – One of the hugely advertised drawcards of the iPhone4 was the ‘Retina Display’, or a PPI (pixel density) higher than 300. Unfortunately, increasing screen size in line with competitors would reduce pixel density, if the same resolution was kept – people would then question why it didn’t have a ‘Retina Display’. Conversely, increasing resolution at the same time would require re-rasterisation of graphical assets by developers across the board to scale properly (note how many applications are hard-coded to the screen dimensions of the phone). This is otherwise known as painting yourself into a corner.
#5 Catch Up – Apple is dominating in the tablet space, in every sense of the word. Whether the Kindle Fire will change that is yet to be seen (though you could argue they are not true competitors). I’d be surprised if a huge amount of resources are being spent on development in this area. There is a key differentiator with tablets, they are premium niche products, where build and slickness matter – they are at the upper end of luxury for most people. Phones, on the other hand, are a necessity in many parts of the world, which is where the differences between the iOS and cheaper/open Android platforms can play to their own strengths. Thus, we can see that the trend now – competitors are following the iPad’s footsteps, and the iPhone is now playing catch up (see IOS5 notifications, voice control, cloud-sync, etc).

Final note, and probably the most important one: As much as it’s at odds with my gadget-loving nature, all this reminds me of the days where we actually used to use our devices till they failed. On closer inspection, we often don’t need the latest, shiniest or greatest. Enjoy what you’re using now and hold onto it till it breaks!

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2 thoughts on “Apple iPhone 4S: What Makes Sense?

  1. nice write up, however i think iphones real strength is that it takes existing tech, latitude, voice control etc, but makes it very refined and seamless to even the most dimwitted user, its the kind of phone you can give to your mum and know that it will work.

    1. Yeah there’s no doubt about that, but the article is about what differentiates the 4S from it’s predecessors (either technologically or circumstantially), rather than what makes iOS better than Android (or vice versa) – a topic which has been raging for years.

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