Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

The Apple iPhone 4S letdown: Why it doesn't matter

Those looking for a complete overhaul of the iPhone 4 with the iPhone 4S were likely disappointed, but the move was standard operating procedure for Apple, which has a bigger end game in mind.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read
Apple CEO Tim Cook at yesterday's iPhone 4S unveiling.
Apple CEO Tim Cook at yesterday's iPhone 4S unveiling. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

commentary It's easy to point to yesterday's iPhone 4S unveiling as a ho-hum affair, that is, if you were expecting something more. And the truth is, most of the tech world was.

Look no further than the slew of rumors that took on a life of their own in the extended wait between last year's model and this one. A bevy of silicon cases flying out of China sporting a dramatic new design derived from an allegedly leaked Foxconn prototype? Check. Gorgeous renderings of devices with a huge display, tapered design, and a change to the iPhone's iconic home button that's gone unchanged four versions over? Check. And hey, how about two new iPhones this year? Add that one to the pile too.

What we got instead was the iPhone 4S, a phone that looks just like the iPhone 4 on the outside but with faster innards. Will people still be lining up for the thing when it's released next week, and will it sell even better than last year's model? Yes and yes.

Apple watchers will remember Apple pulled a similar move going from the iPhone 3G to the 3GS. Almost identical to the 4S update, the 3GS too was a collection of inside changes. The processor got a boost, as did wireless networking with speedier HSPA. The 3GS also brought a better camera, and Voice Control--the voice recognition software that let users launch a song, or make a phone call with their voice.

As the 3GS' spiritual successor--the 4S--does that same trick once again. There's a considerably zippier processor, a better camera, more built-in storage (if you want to pay for it), and faster cellular data networking that works in more places since it's got both CDMA and GSM hardware built-in. That, combined with the iPhone 4S-specific Siri voice recognition feature, makes for a solid update, especially for 3GS users who are itching to update their devices. For people who bought last year's iPhone 4? Probably not so much.

The thing to point out to those who may have been expecting the next big hardware jump is that Apple's not just marketing to those two groups. The goal is to keep pulling in new users from competitors as well as those still using feature phones. Apple CEO Tim Cook said as much yesterday while pointing to a chart of how much of the handset market Apple currently occupies.

"Despite all of this success and all of this momentum, the iPhone has a 5 percent share of the worldwide market of handsets. I could have shown you a much larger number if I just showed you smartphones, but that's not how we look at it," Cook said. "We look at the entire market of handsets because we believe that over time, all handsets become smartphones. This market is 1.5 billion units annually. It's an enormous opportunity for Apple."

Related stories
Apple's next iPhone makes its debut
How Apple co-opted the Internet

Apple iPhone 4S personal assistant: Siri
ZDNet: iPhone 4S is swell, but pricing is the killer app
Apple iPhone 4S unveiled (roundup)

Apple's plan of attack for that "enormous opportunity" is of special interest. Beyond the 4S, Apple is continuing to sell the iPhone 4 and the 3GS. The company has a long history of continuing to offer last year's model, but the 3GS is now being offered free of charge. It's the first time Apple's ever done that. Sure you could get older iPhones for about the price of one month of smartphone service, but this is the first time it's been offered with no cost up front, just a carrier contract. Apple also added an even higher tier $399 version of the iPhone with more storage. That's the same price as the original iPhone after its controversial price cut but likely with a better margin than the other two 4S configurations.

In other words, instead of three choices, there are now five. Those changes to the product lineup are something I'd expect to have a dramatic effect on sales, especially given that Apple has extended the iPhone onto new carriers, including Sprint in the U.S. and KDDI in Japan.

Furthermore, this isn't new behavior from Apple. The company does not radically change its computers every year. As we've seen with the unibody MacBook Pro and iMac, it's worked out pretty well to tweak some things, add a new port and make adjustments to carry a product through its lifetime, eventually working towards a major overhaul.

The difference in this case is that the phone world is moving quite a bit faster, with competitors pushing out new models every few months, running operating systems made by other companies. That affords certain luxuries, like not having to wait for an OS update to sync up before releasing a new model. With the iPhone and its other iOS products, Apple's banking on the fact that users will come to invest in that system by tying in its media stores, app library and the upcoming iMessage platform.

Coming back to disappointment though, worth remembering is the unveiling of the iPad 2 earlier this year. There were rumors abound about Apple packing in a Retina Display, adding speedy Thunderbolt connectivity, and maybe even an SD card slot. What we got instead was a visual redesign of the original iPad that added cameras to the outside, and a speed boost inside. Sound familiar? In the end it didn't really matter. Buyers still snatched them up, besting sales of the first generation device handily. Would anyone want to mess with that formula? Apple certainly doesn't seem to want to, not then and not now.