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Apple's iPhone 5S, 5C debut: We live in boring times

Marketers will do their best to convince you otherwise, but smartphones now belong to a maturing industry with little sizzle.

iPhone 5C
The iPhone 5C made its debut Tuesday.
Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Apple is a tough act to follow, especially when you're Apple. And especially when almost every detail of your big unveiling had already been picked apart and reported on by the press.

After announcing on Tuesday what arguably was one of the most significant product refreshes in years, Apple shares still sagged a little more than 2 percent -- the equivalent of a Wall Street shrug. Besides, the stock had been running up, playing to the saying, buy on the rumor, sell on the news. None of that means that the new products and technologies Apple showed off were necessarily wanting or somehow disappointing.

But everything is context and for the past year, Apple has battled the perception that its technology edge over Samsung was narrowing. Apple now also faces a clutch of scrappy overseas rivals such as Huawei, ZTE, and Xiaomi that make competitive, low-cost smartphones.

So as Apple's senior executives took their respective turns on stage talking about the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S, the hyperbole was, expectedly, as thick as San Francisco's late-summer fog. At one point, CEO Tim Cook extolled the "incredible" interaction between Apple's design and engineering teams. At another point vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller described 5C as "absolutely beautiful."

That over-the-top stuff is always part of what's essentially a big marketing show. But there were no big surprises out of Apple this time around. No surprises because the news leaks were spot-on. And if you were waiting for pyrotechnics, you went home disappointed because Apple had nothing about possible wearable computing devices or televisions in the offing. The only unexpected news came when Apple said that iWork, iPhoto, and iMovie for the iPhone and iPad would be free for download. However, with tech addicts always looking for the next big breakthrough, would this provide a big-enough fix?

Another question: When it comes to price, it's far from clear how the low-end iPhone 5C will sell, considering that it's not exactly a 3 bargain. The 5C will list for $549 and $649, for 16GB and 32GB versions, respectively. The price falls to $99 and $199, with a two-year contract. The unsubsidized pricing offers just a $100 discount from the iPhone 5S contract-free pricing. You'll pay $649 off contract the 16GB version of that device. Also, watch how this unfolds in China. The Tech In Asia blog noted that Apple's online store in China lists the price of the 5C for the equivalent of a hefty $733.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple takes the wraps off the iPhone 5S

Many consumers -- especially the loyalists -- will still hand over their credit cards, convinced that Apple builds better devices. And these are measurably better smartphones than their predecessors. Among the myriad announcements, three caught my eye:

  • Apple unveiled a Touch ID fingerprint scanner for its more expensive iPhone, the 5S. Something like this had been widely expected since Apple spent $356 million last year to buy AuthenTec, a company that makes sensor chips for use both in personal computers and smartphones. For anyone who has ever forgotten a password or worried about security -- um, like most of us -- that's a nice selling point. The end of passwords? We can only hope. (The Motorola Atrix 4G offered a biometric fingerprint smart sensor when it debuted in 2011.
  • The announcement of the A7 processor, the first-ever 64-bit chip in a smartphone, is significant. Given something with that kind of speed and a tool kit, there should be amazing stuff coming out from developers.
  • The iPhone 5S comes with an much improved camera that includes burst mode, better glare reduction, a bigger aperture, and a larger sensor. "You can't underestimate the quality of the new camera, especially when those who understand imaging get a chance to put it through its paces," said technology analyst Tim Bajarin.

"I don't think there was anything fundamentally disappointing out of Apple despite the fact that there was lot of anticipation," said IDC's Will Stofega. "What we've seen with Apple and other vendors is they're incrementally changing and improving things."

Hardly the end of the world, but let's not kid ourselves: Elvis has left the building and the magic's gone out of the smartphone business, leaving companies and their advocates to argue about slightly faster processors, more megapixels, or slightly improved battery life. That's progress, but it's the equivalent of three yards and a cloud of dust.

When Apple came out with the original iPhone in 2007, that was the real game-changer. Before then, the phone carriers were able to dangle access to their networks to dictate what got built into handsets and how much the devices would cost. Handset makers complied or they got frozen out. The result: crappy phones. Then Steve Jobs upset the rules and the rest we know.

The journey part of the story is over. Smartphones, which are so baked into our lives, belong a maturing industry, which means that it's going to get harder and harder for any company -- Apple, Samsung, or any other would-be challenger -- to make a splash. One smartphone isn't all that different from the next. The devices do what we need them to do. It doesn't mean there aren't other delightful applications waiting to get invented. But as Stofega noted correctly, "There's only so much you can do with a device." We're talking about a communications tool, not a talisman.

So here's what's important to remember: The media often gets it wrong, as does Wall Street. The truly critical days are the weeks and months ahead when consumers vote with their wallets. And if the rumors are true, an October surprise may be in the offing from Apple. That one still hasn't leaked though the buzz is feeding a groundswell. Is Apple planning some sort of wearable device or is it the rumored television? Or maybe it will be some sort of big screen that integrates all your home devices into iOS.

Apple has time to get this right, and the instant it introduces a new platform, the excitement will be back. I can't wait because the status quo is boring me to tears.

Now playing: Watch this: iPhone 5C makes its debut