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The real reason there's no iPhone 5: The carriers

Apple's iPhone 4S may have hit with a disappointing thud, but it's part of the iPhone strategy the company has employed all along: a clever shell game to outsmart carrier contracts and sell phones every year.

In retrospect, it shouldn't be a surprise that Apple released a half-step iPhone this week, instead of a revolutionary and redesigned iPhone 5. Think about it--the real reason for the iPhone 4S is the same as for the iPhone 3GS: carrier contracts are two years long.

The 4S isn't meant to be an upgrade for iPhone 4 users--it's a lure to get new iPhone users in the door, and you iPhone 4 folks will get your iPhone 5 upgrade just in time for a new contract. And if you decide you can't wait and spend big bucks to break your contract or buy the iPhone 4S at full price...well, that was your choice, wasn't it?

Is the most amazing iPhone yet good enough?
Is the most amazing iPhone yet good enough?

Look back at Apple's iPhone release history and you'll see that the iPhone 4S is just the next step in the product evolution, which went from 3G to 3GS to 4, and now to 4S. It actually makes perfect sense, once the lust for new technology and new Apple hardware starts to subside. If anything, Apple is playing a very clever shell game with carrier contracts that allows it to grab new buyers every year instead of every two years.

I polled my Twitter brigade after the announcement, asking them whether the iPhone 4 users in the audience would upgrade to the iPhone 4S. The vast majority of iPhone 4 users said no, and the main reason they cited was their contracts. Examples:

That was a pretty standard set of responses from the iPhone 4 set and no surprise, really. (A few said they'd get it no matter what, out of sheer Apple love, but that's to be expected.) On the other hand, here are some responses from 3G owners:

@mollywood iPhone 3GS owner definitely upgrading to an iPhone 4S

@mollywood I am buying, though upgrading from a 3GS, so the reason is pretty obvious. Always wait for the refined product!

@mollywood yes. Wife's 3GS done. She gets my 4, I get 4S

Think about the staggering for a second here and you'll see it's a pretty smart strategy on Apple's part. iPhone 3G owners on contract could skip the 3GS and get a meaty upgrade in the iPhone 4, while iPhone 3GS owners can feel great about jumping all the way up to the Siri-enabled iPhone 4S. Meanwhile, iPhone 4 owners get most of the features of iOS 5, minus Siri, and can pay a nice fat premium if they really, really want it. Either way, Apple sells iPhones year after year after year.

Sure, the iConsumer is being played, but the rage is less than what it would be if the forced upgrade march--an inevitability with Apple and all other consumer tech--was moving at a faster clip than the carrier contracts.

Dissatisfied customer, or future satisfied iPhone 5 customer? Well, both, really.
Dissatisfied customer, or future satisfied iPhone 5 customer? Well, both, really.

Granted, the strategy has its risks.

Android competition is fiercer than ever, with new next-generation phones coming out at a furious clip: the Droid Bionic, the Samsung Galaxy S II, and the HTC Evo 4G are each phenomenal dual-core phones, and the Android OS offers nearly all of what iOS 5 just achieved: notifications, Twitter integration, over-the-air upgrades, more advanced browsing, and yes, speech to text features. Obviously, those features aren't as advanced as Siri, which gives undeniably amazing demo, but is it enough to overcome missing extras like a bigger screen, 4G speeds, and expandable storage (especially considering the $399 with contract price of the 64GB iPhone 4S)?

Plus, the Nexus Prime looms on the horizon, with an event coming October 11 where we may see not only that phone but Google's Ice Cream Sandwich iteration of Android. If the Prime appears in all its dual-core, 4G, 4.5-inch screen, pure Android glory and also supports NFC for mobile payments, plus a camera that's at least equal to the existing iPhone 4 camera, consumers might be wondering why they should bother with a middling upgrade in a sea of superstar phones?

And Apple may be wondering about the wisdom of trickling out minor updates instead of trying to string together a series of grand slams. Me, personally? I had planned to be writing a blog post this week that said I'd preordered my iPhone 5 because Android had its chance and blew it. Now, I'm not so sure. But I'm still not willing to call the iPhone 4S a dropped ball. If anything, it's just the next page in the Apple playbook, and Apple's $90 billion in cash says its been playing pretty well up until now.