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Apple's hard new reality: Elvis has left the house

Disappointment over the iPhone 4S, a nice iteration of a super product, points to a bigger problem of style over substance.

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the event introducing the new iPhone at the company's headquarters today in Cupertino, Calif.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Maxwell Smart would have been proud.

Despite a cascade of increasingly frenetic rumors in the run up to Tuesday's iPhone announcement, Apple maintained its own unflappable version of the cone of silence, refusing to respond to the rumor mill until last week with a bare-bones confirmation that yes, we will host an iPhone event on October 4 and no, that's all we have to say about the matter until then.

Turns out Apple had no need to fill in the blanks. Others had been doing that job for them all summer.

Even in an industry where rumors dominate the conversation, the media scrum in advance of the supposed arrival of the iPhone 5 was over the top. The preceding weeks and months were chockablock with breathless posts confirming one or another cool new feature said to be on the way.

So it was that Boy Genius would claim that Apple was testing a 4G LTE-enabled iPhone with carriers. It was billed as an "exclusive" no less. BGR also ran with a similarly half-baked story reporting that an iPhone 5 would sport a "radical new design." The Next Web reported that former U.S. vice president--and more importantly nowadays--Apple board member Al Gore said that at least two new iPhones were in the pipeline. (CNET was also tempted by the bait.)

You could spend an entire afternoon tallying up the whiffs as they made their way to the top of media aggregators like Techmeme. (Gawker has a good scorecard recounting some of the bigger misses.) )At the same time, some outlets, like 9 to 5 Mac were spot on in reporting Apple's plans to use a dual-core A5 processor as well as the inclusion of a better camera and a Siri-based assistant feature. Win some, lose some. That's part of the fun. But stepping back from the immediate fray, there's something about the blogosphere's insistence on the existence of a dramatic addition to the iPhone family that shows how hard it's going to be for many of us to let Steve Jobs go.

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In our imagination, Jobs is still on stage, delighting the house as he extends his dazzling product presentation to include one more thing. But this time around it was Tim Cook as master of ceremonies, up on stage for more than 1.5 hours--which may have struck some as more reminiscent of a meandering Fidel Castro than the lapidary Steve Jobs. You'd think after all that time running through the laundry list of new products, Apple would have had a blockbuster finish, they harrumphed on the Twitter transom. Not this time around.

The good old days: Steve Jobs at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June 2008. James Martin/CNET

But let's do a reality check. Any disappointment registered by the announcement of the iPhone 4S seemed to purposely ignore the fact that this was a nice iteration of a great product. The new iPhone will be faster by a wide margin and also feature an improved camera with speedier mobile Web access. It's outfitted with a better antenna design and has a longer battery life, among other new features. What's not to like? (Dan Frommer has a nice post explaining this in more detail here.

The new challenge for Apple is that without the Jobs reality distortion field it becomes that much harder to register enthusiasm for something like this, which still was a nice incremental iPhone 4 upgrade (with a cool Siri beta software teaser.) Again, worthy upgrade, but one not worthy of the "one more thing" treatment.

And then there's the team at the helm. Cook and Phil Schiller, who delivered the iPhone news on stage, are solid executives with proven track records. It would be out of character and entirely clunky for this duo to pretend to be something that they're not. So don't expect them to send thrills up your leg. Ain't gonna happen. The world is going to have to adjust to the new reality: Apple will continue to make good products but let's get over it already. Elvis has left the stage.