It's confession time. Yesterday, when Apple announced the iPhone 4S, I’ll admit that I was disappointed. I wasn’t in Cupertino to watch it live, but even through the filter of the half-dozen constantly up-and-down liveblogs I was frantically refreshing, I could tell this wasn’t Apple’s best product announcement ever. At first, I wasn’t sure whether I felt let down because the keynote was too long (it was) and too boring (ditto), because the iPhone 4S wasn’t the iPhone 5 I was hoping for, or just because the new Siri assistant feature seems just a little too "magical" to be true.
After careful consideration, I realized what my problem was. Yesterday’s keynote felt like a let down because the smartphone is growing up. It’s easy to forget, because the iPhone has become so ubiquitous that it simultaneously feels like it’s brand new and has been around forever. In fact, Apple’s smartphone just turns five next June. During it’s first fifty months the iPhone has seen massive innovation in the form of annual updates to both hardware and software. Each new iPhone added dozens of new features--a GPS sensor, more impressive cameras each generation, a crazy-high resolution screen, more advanced sensors, and more. At the same time, each revision to iOS has added new functionality, making your devices more powerful and easier to use at the same time.
This has, understandably, set expectations for iPhone announcements high.
With any new technology, the pace of innovation eventually has to slow down. Four years in, all the obvious checkboxes on the hardware spec sheet are ticked. With the addition of a robust notification system, iOS is much closer to maturity too. Sure, it would be convenient to have turn-by-turn navigation built into the Maps app or any other number of features available in the iPhone’s competitors, but none of these minor enhancements will have the same impact as the great iOS additions of the past: copy/paste, multitasking, or the App Store.
If you think the iPhone 4S is a disappointment, it’s probably time for a reality check.
It’s unreasonable to expect any industry to produce a smartphone revolution every year. Despite the fact that it isn’t teardrop-shaped, equipped with a bigger screen, or packed full of unicorns, the iPhone 4S is likely the best iPhone Apple has ever made. It may not have been the iPhone 5 you were ready to buy, but the iPhone 4S is a thing that fits in my pocket and is better in every important way than my desktop computer was in 2003. It’s got a faster dual-core processor, has a better screen, and a faster Internet connection. AND IT FITS IN MY POCKET. Call me a fanboy, but even this disappointing iPhone 4S still feels like a chair in the sky.
The other problem is that Apple’s Siri, a voice-activated concierge/assistant feature sounds entirely too magical to actually work. Countless companies have promised natural language voice recognition in the last decade, but it has never worked as advertised. I’m reserving judgement on Siri until I actually get hands-on time with an iPhone 4S, but early reports from people I trust are promising. And if Siri actually works, it may be the first “magical” feature from Apple that actually deserves the label. If it works, Apple has built a phone that you can have a conversation with. Can someone find out what Louie CK thinks about that?
If you’re still upset that this year’s iPhone didn’t get a cosmetic redesign or a bigger screen, don’t worry. As the smartphone market continues to mature, the number of actual enhancements and additions manufacturers can make will continue to decline. To keep demand high, manufacturers will be forced to do more frequent cosmetic redesigns. Eventually, we’ll cross a kind of smartphone singularity, where the hardware and software all does exactly the same thing and the only differences between products are cosmetic. If you want to see what that looks like, check out the PC aisle at your Best Buy.
In the meantime, it probably isn’t a good thing to get in the habit of buying a new phone every year. You don't need to do it, and I don't either. It’s tough on your pocketbook, it’s wasteful, and it’s bad for the environment. Enjoy the phone you have, cherish it, and use it. And know that whether it's running iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, or other, it's a magical device.
After all this, if you're still pissed that you’ll have to wait until next year to buy an iPhone 5, you should probably just watch this: