iPhone 4S vs iPhone 4 #yawn

Part one was a purposely snarky but also pretty honest assessment of today’s “Let’s Talk iPhone” event. Me, you, Wall Street – pretty much everybody I’ve talked to was left pretty underwhelmed by 60 minutes plus of sales stats, minor spec bumps, rehashed iOS 5 feature announcements, and, well, Sprint. The big news here, I think, is Sprint and Siri. Sprint finally gets its iPhone and Apple shows the first fruits of its $200M investment in Siri’s voice activated artificial intelligence software. Both Ses are potentially big news, depending on how the markets (financial and consumer) react down the line. But from the perspective of a tech geek blogger covering the first post-Steve Jobs Apple product launch ever – and the first iPhone update in 16 months – I’m totally, entirely, and utterly underwhelmed.

What We Got

Basically we got three things out of Apple today:

  1. Minorly spruced up iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPod nanos
  2. Siri (and some other iOS 5 stuff we’d mostly already seen)
  3. A new U.S. carrier for iPhone

What We Didn’t Get

  1. Any sort of iPhone redesign, cosmetically-speaking
  2. Anything related to Facebook or cable TV
  3. Very much of Tim Cook onstage at all
  4. Cincinnati Bell
  5. 4G (Though I kinda hope AT&T tries to spin it that way)

Why We’re Sad

I’m honestly shocked that 16 months after iPhone 4 hit the streets, Apple saw fit to release an “S” update and not a full on redesign of their flagship product. Despite all of the convincing evidence to the contrary culled from supply chain leaks and the like, I still expected Apple to roll into Tim Cook’s first holiday season as CEO with a brand spankin’ new iPhone to make the kids line up in droves. I was wrong.

Internals-wise, the pundits basically got what we expected. iPhone 4S improves upon iPhone 4’s processing speed and camera specs while managing to cram a dual-mode worldphone antenna into its basically unchanged shell. The A4 chip becomes a dual-core A5, the 5MP/720p camera becomes an 8MP/1080p affair with a five element f2.4 lens, and manufacturing costs are presumably cut by the move to a single device to serve GSM and CDMA networks.

Externally, there’s no teardrop shaped aluminum unibody construction, and the screen remains a 3.5″, 640 x 960 pixel affair. Larger display with edge to edge glass? No. Reshaped home button with optical touchpad? No. Tangle-free earbud wires made from unicorn hair? Nope. Can I get a “Five” in the name, at least? No, sir: Introducing iPhone 4S.

So as a gadget nerd I’m disappointed. I wanted something different to look at. I wanted something all gussied up in a new costume to debate with the Android Army and Windows Phone Phanatics (you’re out there, right?). And I wanted something move overtly new and, well … NEW! … to fuel the fires of my daily grind as we roll towards the next in a seemingly endless line of smartphone launches.

Instead we got this. From one perspective, this is bland, boring, and not worth upgrading to from your still perfectly almost-state-of-the-art iPhone 4. This is hardly worth a second look since most of what 4S will do, 4 already does (if just a tick slower). And let’s face it: Developers, gamers, and hard-core gadget hackers actually make use of bleeding-edge specs, but the majority of iPhone buyers are drawn by sexy looks and swipeable apps, not the difference a dual-core CPU makes during AngryBirdsYouTubeFourSquareRdio sessions.

Why We’re Intrigued

From another perspective, however, this is actually quite interesting. Let’s pose the news in the form of questions:

– If, as widely reported, Sprint really did just bet the company on Apple, was today a win for them? On the one hand, 4S probably isn’t enough to make many current iPhone 4 owners want to upgrade and, in turn, considering jumping from AT&T/VZW to Sprint. On the other hand, Sprint customers finally get their iPhones and anyone else looking to pick up a 4S has to be intrigued by the Now Network – assuming they one-up the competition and offer iPhones with unlimited data plans.

– How big of a deal is Assistant (the new Siri-powered voice control system)? On the one hand, the demos looked pretty slick – slick enough to spawn an immediate wave of “Siri, where is my iPhone 5? Siri, is there a God?” jokes on Twitter. On the other hand, canned demos are one thing and real-world performance is quite another, so we’ll see how well Assistant performs out in the wild. Meantime, I have to wonder this: Do people really want to talk to their phones, even if nobody’s on the other end of the line? More and more these days I see thumbs texting more frequently than I hear voices talking in public. Will people flock to a voice-activated Assistant instead of relying on typed Google searches and swipeable playlists?

Tim Cook has long been known as Apple’s supply chain guy, the man who makes money by negotiating the favorable manufacturing contracts  which allow Apple to keep their prices down. How big of a deal is it – or will it be – that Apple can now produce and sell a single iPhone worldwide? I might have wanted a T-Mobile specific model with AWS banding, and you may have wished for a WiMax 4S just for Sprint, but keeping their product lines lean is part of what’s gotten Apple to a place where they’re widely lauded for selling better products at lower prices. Cramming a dual-mode radio into a slender smarpthone may not be as headline-grabbing as giving said phone a face lift, but it helps pave the way for making future makeovers that much easier to execute.

Services … It’s the Services

So what of those rumors that Facebook would join Apple in today’s announcement? Heck, what about that Facebook app for iPad? Where is it? Lots of people (not me, I’m a ZuckerHater) want their Facebook iPad apps!

And what about Scoble’s crazy story that Apple was prepping an iPad app to kill cable/sattelite TV? What happened to that one? Actually, that’s not so crazy sounding to me – I’m pretty darn sure Apple’s hard at work on something like that, whether it’s destined to live on their own branded HDTV or – more likely – in the AirPlayified space between your iOS device and your Apple TV. Likely the tech is ready but the TV studios haven’t yet seen fit to sign the contracts necessary to make the service run.

What about these service-related goodies that were “supposed” to be announced today in Cupertino? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe they weren’t ready. Maybe they were pulled at the last second for political reasons or because that one clause on the term sheet kept the deal from getting done.

Maybe, just maybe, they were all shoved off once it became clear that iPad 3 (or whatever it’ll eventually be called) wasn’t going into production before next year. Several months back I said I thought we’d see another iPad this year. I even made a wacky wager with Sean based on that assumption. Yeah, I lost, and I’ll pay up at CES in January, but I still think Apple was trying to get a new iPad out the door in time for Xmas Time.

New iPhone, Meet New Rumor Mill

And so, who knows, maybe iPad 3 and iPhone 5 and a cable killer service destined to finally spin that North Carolina data center up … maybe all these goodies and then some were originally planned for a ginormous cornucopia of “Fall Entertainment Event” proportions. But then something happened, be it iPad manufacturing delays or TV studio hesitations or what have you, and Tim Cook and Steve Jobs and Jony Ive decided to push it all back until sometime next year.

Who knows? Not the blogosphere, that’s for sure. But I’m sure we’ll start prognosticating again in short order. But first, CTIA’s next week. I hear there’s some sort of Nexus Galaxy Droid Prime thingy rumored to be launching in San Diego. Hmm, I wonder what that’ll be.