Today was widely expected to bring the announcement of the iPhone 5 — maybe with a bigger screen, a different home button, or a differently shaped case — at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California.
That's not to say Apple didn't say anything of note at its rather lengthy presentation. Not at all. But the big game-changing piece of new hardware didn't come to pass. Aficionados waited, wondering and chattering on liveblogs and on Twitter to see if it would come at the end in Apple's traditional "one more thing" fashion.
The rumors that did come true:
iPhone 4S. The new phone is the iPhone 4S, which Apple is selling on the basis of a better processor, better graphics, and an improved camera, but the same body as the iPhone 4.
Siri. The other thing the iPhone 4S has is Siri, a technology Apple acquired that originated with a popular app called Siri Assistant. It allows you to communicate with your phone by asking it natural-language questions. It's integrated with other functions like calendar, mapping, texting, and checking the weather, and those who love it refer to it as "artificial intelligence."
World phone. The iPhone 4S will work on both GSM and CDMA networks. If you're not a tech-head, what that means is that your phone will work around the world. If you travel a lot overseas, you're likely very familiar with this phenomenon. If you don't, and if you already have a phone that works where you live, this won't mean a whole lot to you.
Sprint. Sprint will now carry the iPhone, and that's a huge development for Sprint customers who have held off on getting smartphones because Sprint's smartphones were Androids, or for those who have an Android phone or would prefer an iPhone. It's not the first time this has happened — it's essentially a replay of when the iPhone finally came to Verizon. But it takes the iPhone even farther away from one of its original, key limitations, which was the inability to use the carrier of your choice.
Other stuff. Yes, "other stuff." There were other announcements today: Better integration with cloud services, operating system upgrades (which actually weren't new today), and upgrades to other Apple devices, including changes to the iPod Touch and iPod Nano.
So what does this mean to you?
For current iPhone devotees. For the people who already love their iPhones, the focus is on getting them to upgrade. The temptations are supposed to be the faster processor, better camera, and Siri, but there doesn't necessarily seem to be any one giant thing that current users will absolutely have to have. Moreover, one of the writers at Mashable mentioned during their liveblog that if the iPhone 4S has the same body as the iPhone 4, nobody is going to know you have one, which takes a bit of the naked-competition aspect out of the need to upgrade.
For users of other smartphones. If you have an Android phone, there aren't a lot of obvious reasons in this release to switch to an iPhone — unless, that is, you have Sprint or you really, really want to try Siri.
For non-smartphone users. If you haven't gone to a smartphone before, Apple doesn't seem to be focusing on any particular reason why this would be your moment. (Unless, as stated before, you have Sprint and have been holding out for the iPhone rather than an Android phone). But still, every time there's a new release, a certain number of people decide that this is when they're going to jump.
There's one exception, though: Apple announced that if you don't need the newest and niftiest, the prices on existing iPhones will drop — the iPhone 3GS will be free with a new contract. Dropping the amount of money a consumer has to choke up in order to get into a new kind of technology is sharply reminiscent of the recent drops in Amazon's Kindle prices, and could have the same ability to tempt newbies who don't demand high-end versions of anything.
It's important to keep in mind, I think, that much of this depends on what you personally require in a phone, and it doesn't need to come down to "brilliant" versus — pardon the indelicacy — "sucks."
Just as there are people who are firmly committed to the Apple model, there are people who can't stand it. Apple acts as a kind of curator of the technology used by the people who own its products: It only has one high-end phone at a time (with adjustments for the amount of storage space), and that's the phone you get. Apple decides what will be on it, what will be left off of it, and what it's decided you don't need anymore. Apple people love this quality — it makes everything simple, it makes everything work out of the box, and as long as you stay within the Apple universe, their products are famous for working together very easily.
By contrast, Android phones vary in size, features, price — you choose your own compromises. As a personal example, I greatly prefer a physical keyboard rather than a touchscreen, and I don't mind that it makes the phone thicker. It's strictly a preference. There are still Android phones that have physical keyboards — you have that choice.
At the same time, while my Android phone is very much integrated with Google, it's not integrated as smoothly with as many different things out of the box as the iPhone is.
So some of this comes down to something elemental: How you want to relate to technology. Price and carriers will never convert all the Android people to Apple, any more than they would convert all the Apple people to Android.
Voice recognition is the same way. Apple loves Siri, and so do a lot of the people who use it — they love the way you can ask it for directions or ask it in natural language whether you have a meeting on Friday. Me? I don't talk to my phone. I don't need to talk to my phone. Buttons are fine. They are clear. I know I'm not being misunderstood. I'd worry too much — what if it didn't actually hear me? What if it thought I said Thursday? How much do you trust your phone?
Speaking of trust, Apple is also promoting a feature called "location sharing" that would let you find other people using their iPhones. It has parental controls, meaning that your kids can't turn it off. It's about as close as you're going to get to a LoJack for your children. That would be the upside. The downside would be that you'd better know the capability well and how to use it and how to turn it off.
The proof, as always, will come with Apple's ability to sell a new product to new customers and convince the people who cannot live without their iPhones that they can't live without this one, either.