Apple launch the iPhone 4S, iOS5 and iCloud is it as revolutionary as we thought?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The "New" iPhone

iPhone 4S was finally launched yesterday amid a maelstrom of expectation, wish-listing and hype. Alas, the general opinion of many in the technology space was/is genuine disappointment, predominantly at the hardware. Let's make this clear though, Apple has never been one to adopt bleeding edge technologies and fill their devices to the brim with features. They've always maintained that quality of experience and simplicity were the more significant deciding factors for consumers and have geared their products towards those goals for time immemorial. That said, the iPhone 4S is far removed from an obsolete device in terms of technology.

Using build materials and quality that to this date only Nokia have ever managed to approach, they built a chassis with the iPhone 4 that to this day is impressive not just for the size (or lack there of) but the level of design that went into creating it. I dare you to name one other manufacturer that used Gorilla Glass and stainless steel as the only materials in the external construction! As for the internals, though not a lot is completely new, (dual core processor, updated baseband chip) there are some aspects that are truly impressive.
 The new GPU, likely to be a downclocked (compared to the iPad 2), dual-core PowerVR SGX543 chip is easily better than every GPU currently on the market and likely a few more that are still unreleased, including the Tegra 3 GPU and Qualcomm's additions for its upcoming chipsets.

For the sake of perspective, the GPU in the new iPhone as seen in the iPad is able to push twice as many pixels as the best currently utilised GPU (the Mali-400 MP4) as seen in the Samsung Galaxy S2, while simultaneously outperforming the Galaxy S2 in both the number of triangles drawn and in Fill Rate as well. Considering that Apple likely aimed for similar (if not exact performance numbers) on both devices, it's fair to say that the 4S is to the mobile gaming industry what the 3GS was before it. The new standard, the "Halo" device that their best efforts will go toward.

The new camera, utilising technologies that the best in the industry (Nokia of course) have used to significant effect on their camera phones such as ND filters, wide apertures and complex lens construction, is another step up for Apple and deserves a mention. Albeit in the current age it is likely a bit run of the mill compared to devices like the Galaxy S2, N8 and HTC myTouch Slide in terms of special capabilities.

The biggest improvement on the hardware side would have to be the single radio SKU and thus single device for us the world over. Combining a GSM-based baseband with a CDMA supporting baseband on the same Qualcomm chip, iPhone users on CDMA carriers will be able to roam on global carriers with ease, possibly even being able to pop and swap out their SIM cards at will. This also has the added effect of making a world-wide simultaneous release possible while decreasing the complexity of hardware and manufacturing that needs to be done by Apple.

That said, there are quite a few disappointments with this "new" hardware, predominantly the lack of LTE-compatible hardware and missing NFC. It's unlikely that these omissions will mean much in the near term, ~ 1 year, due to adoption rates of these technologies but these omissions make upgrades from the iPhone 4 to the 4S all the more unlikely as users struggle to determine what the differences between the two are. In any case, these omissions are more due to limitations of current technology and space/design constraints than they are willful omissions on Apple's part.

To the avid follower, it would appear that Apple is following a similar product cycle to Intel. That is to to say that there is usually a big improvement in specifications, handset design and chipset process followed by a much more minor improvement to specifications while maintaining the same basic hardware design; Something Intel calls "Tick-Tock". On this basis, the hardware improvements seen thus far make perfect sense and justify why the major changes in this product cycle are software related.

iOS has evolved quickly from what was more or less a dumbed-down feature phone without even so much as video recording on initial release to becoming one of the most stable whilst still functional mobile device operating systems available today. Sure it's not feature-packed, easily unlockable or very flexible but the things it allows and does are often done very well.

The changes that came with the new version of iOS deal primarily with very slightly better integration and sharing with social media services like twitter, much improved notifications system and substantial ties to the cloud and a few apple services. The biggest addition is Siri, the voice and artificial intelligence software whose makers Apple acquired in early 2010. Unlike most voice-enabled software available today, Siri doesn't appear to be limited to a small set of key words and phrases but rather the user can freely interact with the software much like one would another person. As Apple have previously stated, it's a lot like your own personal assistant and the capabilities here are staggering. Whilst many mobile operating systems today feature at least a few key voice commands, Siri's implementation is a hop-step and jump beyond what anyone else has managed to put into devices to date.

That's not to say that in day to day activity that it's a wholly practical proposition but the technology therein is  really, really good. Stephen Elop, CEO of Nokia mentioned a few months back that voice-control, increasingly context-aware applications and predictive algorithms would be the future of mobile devices, highlighting it as a key feature that sets Windows Phone apart from other operating systems. Whilst that may have been true then, it's fairly obvious that iOS5 and Siri have retaken that crown, at least for the time being.

iCloud on the other hand is a feature Apple have continued to drum up both at WWDC in June and now at the launch of iPhone 4S. The main elements of iCloud, iTunes in the cloud, Documents in the cloud, Photo's in the cloud, Apps and Books in the cloud, Cloud backup and Find my iPhone/friends while new to iOS aren't particularly new to other operating systems.

Both Android and Windows Phone have web-accessible means of reinstalling, installing and managing applications on the device while away from the computer. Windows Phone takes this all a step further by allowing automatic syncing of Office documents (just like Documents in the Cloud does), Photos and music via Skydrive AND Zune along with  a web-based find my phone feature. All of which have and continue to be available to users. What's more is that SkyDrive offers 5 times the storage of Apple's Documents in the Cloud with the exact same rules and restrictions.  Features that by and large will have been available for well over 6 months by the time iOS5 hits users. Sure iCloud is great for people that didn't know about Windows Phone or didn't have access to similar services via other means but the additions are not revolutionary in any way, simply more convenient.

Now for some perspective. Apple has incrementally improved the internal hardware of the iPhone without setting the world completely alight and doing something unexpected. That said, the device is not to be scoffed at, especially in light of the hardware and software improvements  made available, especially Siri. Sure the iPhone may not be the best of the best in any one category, but that's never really mattered to Apple and it's fans. What's always mattered is the execution of the whole device and the associated hardware, software and services, often being the best in class when all things are considered and I see no reason for this to change now.

The new iPhone will sell and sell well, of that there is little doubt and Apples inclination towards keeping the iPhone 4 and 3GS (albeit with lowered storage) indicates to me that they have every intention of consolidating and growing their lead as the single largest handset manufacturer in the game. That said, this rather incremental update on Apple's hand does open the doors for Samsung, HTC, Motorola and Nokia to woo those buyers that are on the fence concerning the new iPhone. Though I can't see the benefits derived therein being anything substantial for the other OEM's.

Here's to hoping though, competition in the industry has never hurt the end-user!


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