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How badly does the iPhone 4S need a redesign?

The iPhone 4S looks just like the iPhone 4. How disappointed are you, or does what's inside matter more?

iPhone 3G and iPhone 4: The fundamentals aren't really that different. Sarah Tew/CNET

Surprise: the iPhone 4S looks just like the iPhone 4. Disappointing? Sure. However, consider this: it's been more than four years since the original iPhone debuted. In those four years, much has happened under the hood of the iPhone, but surprisingly little has changed about the iPhone's outward appearance.

Even amid yesterday's outcries over a possibly similar-looking iPhone 4S, I was reminded of how little the iPhone has changed previous to last year's 4. The iPhone 3GS and 3G both shared an identical design, and that design only changed slightly (mostly in the curved plastic back as opposed to the original's flatter aluminum) from the first iPhone. The same is true with the iPhone 4S. History repeats.

The iPhone was revolutionary back in 2007; no other phone looked like it. Today it's still an exceptionally attractive phone, but it blends into a sea of me-too touch-screen competitors. What was once utterly futuristic has now become commonplace. That's what happens when you have a phone estimated to ship more than 80 million units this year.

The original iPod debuted in the fall of 2001. Its design, unlike the iPhone's, wasn't utterly revolutionary. Still, its iconic scroll wheel remained until 2007's iPod Touch. Over that span of six years, the iPod had its share of spin-off designs, including the Shuffle, Mini, and Nano.

The iPhone may be 4 years old, but will a functional design shift happen, even next year? It's unlikely, because right now it isn't necessary or even practical.

Related stories:
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• Apple's iPod lineup (2011)
• Full coverage: Apple's iPhone event

Full-screen touch screen: The iPhone is a tabula rasa, a slab of screen that can be transformed into whatever software or graphics are displayed on it. Buttons, movies, maps: the iPhone becomes what it displays. That means the iPhone can reinvent itself based on the software and OS it runs. The iPhone can't change its dimensions easily because its screen dimensions are used by so many apps, and because the screen needs to be used for vertical and horizontal functions constantly. With all the effort made to make a Retina Display, it's not surprising that Apple let the iPhone 4S screen stay the same.

The Home button: The iPhone's most iconic feature, the "scroll wheel" of its design, is the Home button. The single, simple button has been criticized for being somewhat dated, and for being unnecessary; why not have an all-touch iPhone, instead? Still, consider the comfort factor of the Home button: it works when touch elements sometimes fail, and it's a no-brainer bail-out button for anyone who feels lost on the phone. It's perfectly placed on the iPhone (not so much on the iPad). Some day, we'd love to see an all-screen iPhone--but only if the Home button functionality gets shifted to the side of the device.

Size/weight: As long as battery life continues to do battle with processor speeds and future 4G connectivity, the iPhone will need plenty of battery room. A sliver-thin iPhone would only needlessly compromise battery life, and the iPhone's already very compact as it is. The iPhone's screen may creep over more of the total front real estate, but that's the only change we can see coming. As John Gruber at Daring Fireball noted, any sort of "teardrop" tapered shape would make holding the iPhone sideways feel unbalanced and awkward.

Larger screen: That's what the iPad is for. iPods evolved into different-size variants, and when seen in that light, you could consider the iPad as the "XL" iOS device alternative in the same way that the Shuffle served new purposes for iPod users. Perhaps the iPhone's screen will get slightly larger, or slightly smaller, but not appreciably so. Too small, and apps are hard to use; too large, and you have a mini-iPad. The iPhone 4S doesn't up the ante on screen size, which could be disappointing for some, but it's fine if you like a more pocketable phone.

Bottom line: it's the software, stupid. Apps and interfaces make the iPhone what it is. iOS could use some interface revamping (iOS 5 makes modest upgrades), maybe even a visual overhaul, but that wouldn't change the base physical shape of the iPhone. At this point, not much will, until we advance to an era of holographic visors and microscopic phone implants to our retinas. To make the iPhone much smaller sacrifices the usable space. Bendable screens? That's still the stuff of experimentation and daydreaming. The iPhone's biggest changes are usually under the hood: front-facing camera, video recording, GPS, or iOS updates. With the iPhone 4S, it's business as usual if you remember the iPhone 3GS keynote.

So, why do we get upset each and every year when a rumored iPhone emerges that looks basically similar to iPhones that came before it? Because, we're impatient, and we like pretty pictures. And we want to find something to dislike. The truth is, the iPhone's external design didn't need much changing at all--not this year. Not unless you're into dreaming of the future, rather than living an excellent present. It's what's inside that matters...isn't it?

Do you agree, or are you starting to find the boxy shape of the iPhone an annoyance? Are you let down by the repetitive look of the iPhone 4S? Sound off below.