Apple's iPhone 6S: The peak of smartphone boredom?

With few physical changes expected in the next iPhone, it's become emblematic of a problem with the broader smartphone industry: It's just not that exciting anymore.

Can Apple CEO Tim Cook wow us next week?

Apple

You can feel the difference, can't you?

The excitement that once gripped you as hype built for the next Apple iPhone isn't quite there anymore.

Smartphone makers used to wow us with every new bell, whistle and fingerprint reader, but nowadays a slightly sharper display or crisper camera elicit little more than a shrug. It's a dilemma the entire industry faces as the smartphone market matures. Just look at how Samsung's sales have sputtered even with a steady stream of new Galaxy smartphones or how HTC's tumbled after that company released its flagship One smartphone with minimal physical changes.

There is no better poster child for this problem than the upcoming iPhone.

Next week, Apple will unveil its next iPhone, likely to be called the iPhone 6S, and it will look exactly like last year's model. The appearance of that phone wasn't all that different from Apple's first smartphone, introduced eight years ago.

"What can they pull out of the iPhone bag to get people excited?" asked Kantar Worldpanel analyst Carolina Milanesi. "That's what the big question is."

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The new iPhone 6S: What's new compared to the 6?
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The likely marquee feature for this year's iPhone 6S will be the Force Touch technology used in the Apple Watch, a pressure-sensitive display that responds to various types of touches. A new color could be in the works as well. Some rumors say Apple may tweak the device's display and materials and slightly alter the design to incorporate a bigger battery. None of that seems likely to spark consumers' attention the way voice-activated digital assistant Siri did.

The next iPhone isn't expected to look much different from the current iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.

CNET

Our boredom doesn't mean Apple won't sell millions of phones, but it does mean consumers may think a little longer before shelling out cash for an iPhone 6S when their old devices are "good enough."

Next week, other products may be the real attention-getters in what some reports have said will be a jam-packed launch event in San Francisco. Apple is expected to introduce new iPads (possibly including a long-awaited 12.9-inch iPad Pro) and an updated Apple TV , and it will launch its iOS 9 and Mac OS X El Capitan software, first shown in June.

Apple declined to comment ahead of its event.

The iPhone is by far the company's most important device. It accounts for more than two-thirds of Apple's revenue and easily outpaces other products in shipments and sales.

But the smartphone market overall isn't growing as it once did. Shipments worldwide should rise only about 10 percent this year, according to IDC, well below the 28 percent increase in 2014, with China shouldering much of the responsibility for that slowdown.

Samsung and fellow smartphone makers including LG, HTC and Xiaomi have felt it, and not even Apple could avoid concerns during its most recently concluded quarter. In July, Apple reported fiscal third-quarter earnings that were better than analysts had forecast and revenue largely in line with expectations, but it wasn't the blowout Wall Street has gotten used to. The company also projected weaker fiscal fourth-quarter sales than anticipated and said it sold fewer iPhones (47.5 million) in its third quarter than Wall Street analysts expected (49.4 million).

While the iPhone has seen notable changes over the years, it has essentially remained a rectangular box with a round home button since the first model arrived in 2007, and that design limits what Apple can do. It's already boosted the overall size of the devices with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus that arrived a year ago.

Apple will hold its event at this San Francisco venue next week.

James Martin/CNET

Simply put, many consumers are finding their older smartphones to be snappy enough. Changes in the wireless market in the US are a factor too: Carriers have essentially done away with two-year contracts, so consumers may think a little harder about forking over $649 for an iPhone instead of the subsidized price of $200 they paid up front before.

For the iPhone 6S, those two-year upgraders will be crucial.

"Apple has always really embraced the two-year upgrade cycle, and its strategy has been to make sure the two-year upgrade is a compelling one," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said. "Compare the 6S to the 5S, which is the comparison most would-be buyers will be making, and it'll be a really significant upgrade."

Apple has said many consumers still need to upgrade their phones, even though a record of people already jumped at the chance to buy the iPhone 6. According to Kantar Worldpanel, nearly one-third of both US and urban Chinese iPhone users -- Apple's two biggest markets -- own iPhones that are at least two years old. If Apple manages to get everyone who hasn't bought a new smartphone in a couple of years to upgrade, the device to be unveiled next week could surpass the success of the iPhone 6.

And yes, the iPhone 6S should still command long lines as the Apple faithful vie to be the first to get the new device on launch day.

But for everyone else, a new iPhone is no longer a must-have item.

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