The iPhone 4S is what cruise control looks like.
After a decade in the fast lane, Apple showcased a new smartphone, a new CEO, and a tacit admission that it can't produce revolutionary products at the drop of a hat.
All eyes were on the world's most valuable technology company on Tuesday as Apple revealed the newest iteration of the iPhone, which comes out in the United States, Canada and several other countries on Oct. 14. But while many fans and analysts were expecting the iPhone 5 – a faster, slimmer, entirely redesigned smartphone that would once again leave competitors in the dust – they instead got the iPhone 4S, a gadget very similar to the current model in design, but with a few new features and a brawnier processor under the hood.
"Unfortunately for Apple, this is happening at a time when competitors are aggressively bringing new products to market with superior user experience in the form of wider and better screens, intuitive [user interfaces] and more integrated apps," said David McQueen, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.
"As a result, iPhone 4S could be the first disappointing device since the launch of the brand."
To be sure, disappointment is a relative word when it comes to Apple. The iPhone is still the most popular and profitable consumer smartphone in North America and many other parts of the world, and seven out of every 10 tablets sold are iPads. But the iPhone 4S, in many ways, is perhaps an apt product launch debut for incoming CEO Tim Cook, who, until Steve Jobs stepped down this summer for health reasons, was the company's chief financial officer.
For the past decade, Mr. Jobs has been the heart, soul and public face of Apple. His legendary salesmanship is credited with driving the company's entire line of mobile consumer gadgets, from iPods to iPads. But during much of that time, Mr. Cook's decidedly unsexy behind-the-scenes work of negotiating dirt-cheap supply contracts with manufacturers and lopsided deals with carriers has been just as vital to Apple's profitability. As such, it was fitting that Mr. Cook's first product launch as full-time CEO should feature a phone that looks ordinary on the surface, but packs a technical wallop underneath.
At Tuesday's event, Mr. Cook was clearly cognizant of the weight of both his predecessor's track record and Apple's recent history.
"This is my first product launch since being named CEO – I'm sure you didn't know that," he said jokingly to the audience of about 350 in an Apple campus auditorium, before adding: "It is a pleasure to host you today. I love Apple."
But even in an event decried by many observers as uninspiring, Apple took steps on Tuesday to fight off growing competition in the smart-phone sector by leveraging its massive store of users, apps and services. The company will offer previous versions of the iPhone at heavily discounted prices, in order to compete with a slew of entry-level devices powered by Google's Android operating system.
Apple also introduced a piece of software called Siri, which interprets a user's voice commands and may one day fully replace every other input mechanism, from keyboards to touch-screens. However, it's too early to tell how seamless the software will be when consumers first get their hands on it. Still, on initial viewing, RBC analyst Mike Abramsky said the software "appears more natural and polished than competitors'."
Ultimately, it's unlikely that a less-than-revolutionary product launch is going to persuade many Apple customers to switch to a different phone. In the short term, Mr. Cook's wizardry as CFO likely ensures a long run of profitability for Apple, even if its hardware offerings stop improving by leaps and bounds. But the reaction to the iPhone 4S launch raises two important questions: How long before consumers start demanding the next industry-shaking iProduct, and can Mr. Cook deliver it?
TAKING A BITE
Siri, a new piece of voice-command software, takes spoken user input to a new level, being able to recognize plain-English commands. Although it's still early days, the software has the potential to revolutionize user input and make gadgets accessible to a much larger group of consumers. The iPhone's new HD-video camera, which comes with image-stabilization software, also wowed many observers.
Almost everyone expected the new iPhone to feature a faster processor and a better camera. And Apple didn't disappoint. The iPhone 4S will come with a dual-core A5 processor, which makes it up to two times faster than the previous model. It also features an 8-megapixel camera.
The much-hyped redesign of the iPhone, alas, was not to be. Many fans were hoping the new gadget would feature radically new styling. Instead, the iPhone 4S greatly resembles its immediate predecessor in the looks department.