Keynote Disappoints, iPhone 4S Does Not

My initial reaction to this week’s Apple keynote media event was disappointment. Maybe this will change as I have more time to reflect on the event. But that was how I felt immediately after it finished.

This has nothing to do with the iPhone 4S, the major announcement of the day. The new iPhone is a solid and impressive upgrade. I was not disappointed by the new hardware (more on that shortly). True, I had been lulled into believing we would see an iPhone 5 today — together with an iPhone 4S. And, almost by definition, naming a product “4S” instead of “5” suggests that even Apple believes the enhancements are not huge enough to deserve of an upping of the number. Regardless, this was not the source of my disappointment.

My reaction also has has nothing to do with Tim Cook hosting the event. Assuming the script of the event had remained the same, the presence of Steve Jobs would have made no difference.


iPhone 4S & Everything Else


What was disappointing about the keynote

So, what exactly was disappointing about the keynote event? It’s more about the way things were announced rather than what was announced.

Pacing. Tim Cook and company took almost an hour before mentioning the iPhone 4S. Up until that point, there were no new products of any note. Most of the first hour was spent showcasing how great Apple was doing…from its retail stores to iOS 5. Now, I understand that this event probably has the biggest audience Apple will have all year. It’s the perfect time to flaunt your success. But there’s a limit. Based on my Twitter feed, nearly everyone was complaining of boredom (if they weren’t napping) by the time the big announcements came along. This is not how a keynote should go. It wound up detracting from the major news at the end of the event that, with better pacing, would have been better received.

Burying the news. During that long period of build-up, Apple did announce two new apps: Cards (you can send cards from your iOS device) and Family and Friends (you can locate and track where your friends and relatives are). These were not major announcements, but they were notable. Unfortunately, they were revealed in the middle of a recap coverage of previously announced aspects of iOS 5. As such, it was hard to tell at first that these were new features at all. Apple could have done a better job of highlighting them.

Actually, Apple is still burying the news of these apps. I checked out the three press releases Apple issued today. These new apps are not even mentioned. Nor could I find them on any Apple iOS webpage. Odd. [Update: “Find My Friends” (aka “Family and Friends”) is covered on this Apple webpage.]

iPod touch and iPod nano “updates.” If you’re going to say a product has been updated, you should mean it. The iPod touch update hardly qualified. As far as I could tell, the only thing new about it is that you can now get it in white. It doesn’t benefit from any of the improvements to the hardware in the iPhone 4S. Most disappointing, for a device that Apple touts as a “game machine,” it doesn’t get the iPhone 4S’s dual-core A5 chip. This means (according to what was said at the event) you won’t be able to use the touch to play games that take advantage of the new speed in the A5, such as Infinity Blade II coming in December (the game will only play on the iPhone 4S). This was disappointing news. The touch comes off as the poor step-sister to the iPhone here. Apple could have done better — unless it deliberately wants to inhibit touch sales, pushing users to the iPhone instead. 

Although the iPod nano got what amounts only to a cosmetic upgrade (new larger icons and clock faces), I am fine with that. This is a welcome break from several years of radical redesigns of the nano each year. No other Apple product had seen so much change over this period — to no particular purpose. Nano upgrades had been more of a see-saw ride than a forward push. It was time for the nano to pause and take a deep breath. It did.

Still, Apple might have been better off not even mentioning these updates at the media event. Instead, it could have issued a press release together with updated webpages after the event was over. 

What was right with the keynote

When Apple did finally get around to announcing its big news of the day, it was worth the wait. 

iPhone 4S. Don’t be fooled by the name or the fact that the iPhone 4S looks identical to the iPhone 4. This is a significant upgrade.

For computing devices, speed is almost always the key that unlocks everything else. It’s not so much that faster speed allows you to do the same thing you could before, except in less time. It’s that faster speed allows you to do things you could not do at all previously. That’s what I expect will happen with the dual-core A5 chip inside the iPhone 4S. Infinity Blade II is just the beginning.

One of the most popular functions of any smartphone these days, beyond using it as a phone, is using it as a camera. With an 8 megapixel still camera and 1080p video, the iPhone 4S ups the ante. There’s still no optical zoom (I didn’t really expect this, given the design restrictions of the iPhone), but it otherwise looks to be competitive with all but the best point-and-shoot cameras on the market.

Siri. I’ll reserve final judgement on this new voice feature until I get to test out how well it actually works. But, assuming it works well, Siri will likely go down as the most significant advance in mobile computing this year. Everywhere a keyboard now appears in iOS, you’ll have the option to use a microphone instead. If you can accomplish most text-oriented tasks just by speaking into your phone, as Siri promises, it will revolutionize how you use a smartphone. After all, hassles with typing have been one of the most frequent complaints about smartphones.

Based on watching the videos, Siri is likely to boost use of the earbuds/microphone that come with the iPhone (or a Bluetooth alternative), as voice-activation encourages “hands-free” interaction with the iPhone. 

Note: Apple states that Siri will be beta software when it is released as part of iOS 5 next week. Also, Siri only works with the iPhone 4S. The rest of iOS 5 is compatible with all the iPhone and iPod touch models that will be for sale.

World Phone. The iPhone 4S is a world phone, so “both CDMA and GSM customers can now roam internationally on GSM networks.” This also means you no longer have to choose whether you want an AT&T or a Verizon phone at the time of purchase. You can get one phone and choose your carrier later. Presumably, you can even change carriers without having to purchase new hardware (I am not certain this is how things will work, but it looks like it will). This is huge; you are no longer “locked in” to a carrier. Carriers will have to compete more for your business. Plus, in related welcome news, the iPhone is coming to Sprint. [Update: As pointed out by a reader comment below, the footnotes to the Apple webpage for iPhone 4S specs suggest there are more restrictions to CDMA access than I had thought. Also, contrary to what I wrote, iPhones will be sold with a carrier already assigned. However, you may able to switch carriers later, assuming you are willing to pay any early cancellation fee. There is still uncertainty about this.] 

Pricing. At the top end, there is now a 64GB iPhone 4S for $399. At the bottom end, you can get an iPhone 3GS for free(!) with a two-year contract. This will make it tougher than ever for competitors to outflank the iPhone on price.

So, yes, there is a lot to like about today’s announcements. I only wish Apple had done a better job of communicating this. In the end, it likely won’t matter much. Memories of the keynote presentation will fade and we’ll be left with the realities of the products themselves. As such, the iPhone 4S should do a great job of maintaining, and increasing, the popularity of the Apple’s premiere iOS device.