Why Is Everybody So Down on the iPhone 4s?

People should (and will) stop wishing it was an iPhone 5 -- the device is a very significant upgrade

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I'm not an Apple fanboy. I just bought a new Toshiba PC-based laptop a few months ago. I think iPads are extravagant, unnecessary toys. But I <heart> my iPhone. I can't imagine life without it. So like other iPhone enthusiasts, I was eager to hear about Apple's new version yesterday. Yet unlike so many others, I'm not particularly disappointed with the iPhone 4s -- and I can't figure out why so many other people are.

What's In a Name?

As far as I can tell, most of the dismay at the release of the iPhone 4s stems from pure semantics. People are mad that an iPhone 5 wasn't released -- but they can provide few examples of what they expected from an iPhone 5, that the iPhone 4s is lacking, other than its having a different name. Here are those few:

  • A Different Form Factor: Really? If the phone was shaped a little differently, then you'd buy it?
  • A Bigger Screen: If I want an iPhone with a big screen, then I'll buy an iPad. I like its compact size. For example, I think the HTC EVO is a little too big for a pocket. And would a half inch more on the screen really be a game-changer? 
  • LTE (4g speed): Okay, I actually agree with this. But I (very) closely followed the new iPhone release rumors, and I never heard a credible one suggesting that we were going to get LTE. So no one should find this surprising. And according to Apple's presentation yesterday, (if you believe the company's stats) its improved technology will allow the iPhone 4s to approach data speeds of current 4g phones out there, even though the phone will utilize 3g networks.

Is It Really a Much Less Exciting Upgrade Than the iPhone 4 Was?

But other than these three possibilities, Apple pretty much satisfied every other conceivable upgrade and more:

  • Camera upgrade makes it among the best of any smartphone
  • Video upgrade to 1080p, with video stabilization
  • Better battery life despite better performance
  • A5 dual-core chip, making it as fast as the iPad2
  • Siri, the new voice activated personal assistant
  • A world phone

Let's compare that to the upgrades from the iPhone 3Gs to the iPhone 4:

  • Camera upgrades including a front facing camera making it competitive with most smartphones
  • Video upgrade to 720p
  • Better battery life despite better performance
  • A4 chip
  • Facetime
  • Retina Display
  • New form factor (it's more rectangular now and a slightly thinner, but the screen shape is identical)

The only significant difference that I can see here is the new form factor and front-facing camera. Siri and Facetime balance each other out. Retina display and the world phone capability balance each other out. Was the form factor really that big of a game-changer for the iPhone 4? It wasn't for me: I stuck with my now-ancient 3G, eagerly awaiting Verizon.

The iPhone 4s Will Be Huge

And that touches on the really key point that some analysts who are bearish on the iPhone 4s are missing. This is the first new iPhone version release in the U.S. where buyers can utilize carriers other than just AT&T. In fact, they can now utilize three networks: Verizon and Sprint are in the mix this time.*

As a result, the potential sales for the iPhone 4s are even greater. The iPhone 4 release in June 2010 forced customers to use AT&T, which at the time accounted for about one-quarter of the market. Any other iPhone buyers would have to switch carriers. With Verizon and Sprint, Apple adds about another 50% of the U.S. mobile phone market to the group of potential iPhone buyers who wouldn't have to switch carriers. This group triples in size from the June 2010 release to the October 2011 release.

People may also be underestimating the impact of Siri. I think it looks far more revolutionary than Facetime. Really, I never saw much use for Facetime. Do I really need video calling on my mobile phone? I've got Skype at home for that. It's a nice feature, but not something that will alter our lives.

Siri, however, could change everything. From the presentation yesterday, it appears to be a genuine stab at artificial intelligence in a mobile device. This isn't just voice-activated commands and dictation. It's not just a search engine that spits out answers according to the words you use. This is a capability for your phone to process the words you are actually saying, to interpret the meaning of the phrase, and to respond accordingly. That's new.

For these reasons, I suspect that, ultimately, the iPhone 4s will be a huge seller for Apple. The strange and probably misguided disappointment that some iPhone-philes feel will dissipate. New and old iPhone users will come to embrace the new smartphone and delight in its upgrades. I know I will.


* Yes, I know that Verizon got the iPhone 4 earlier this year. The point here is that this is the first new release for which providers other than just AT&T were involved.

Image Credit: Apple