In a closely watched but ultimately anticlimactic product launch, Apple (AAPL) on Tuesday unveiled its latest iPhone, with a low-key Tim Cook emceeing his first event since iconic CEO Steve Jobs resigned in August.
Disappointed fans jumped all over Apple for releasing merely an upgrade to the iPhone 4, dubbed iPhone 4S, instead of the widely expected iPhone 5. But analysts reminded them that many cool features -- faster operating system, and slicker camera and video -- were hiding under the hood.
improvements in software and the new camera, for example, are impressive," said analyst Roger Kay with Endpoint Technologies Associates. "But if you don't have a new look on the outside, people tend not to get as excited."
Cook seemed comfortable onstage but was working a room clearly missing the energy Jobs used to infuse into these events. The real star of the show was Siri, the new voice-recognition feature billed as the user's "personal assistant," a female voice that soon will be helping millions of Apple fans answer emails, make dinner reservations and remember to pick up the dry cleaning, all without a single key stroke.
"Sure, it would have been cool to have some new, curved-glass cover," said Frank Gillett with Forrester
Research. "But the improvements to the user experience are pretty compelling, especially Siri. And it's not just voice recognition. She's truly an 'assistant' acting on the information you give her. You are talking to an intelligent agent inside the phone who understands the context of what you're saying."
A voice of change
During a demonstration, Apple's head of mobile software, Scott Forstall, showed how Siri not only carries out an instruction like other voice-recognition programs, but can actually learn over time through interaction with its user. For example, once Siri has identified your wife's name in your contact list, it will automatically remember that information in future requests.
Cook and members of the executive team devoted nearly a third of the 90-minute event at their Cupertino campus to Siri. And it was clearly one of the two hottest topics among analysts and journalists invited to the presentation. The other was iCloud, Apple's new digital sharing service that Jobs introduced at a conference in the summer.
While bloggers immediately bashed Apple for not unveiling the thinner phone with a larger screen they'd been expecting, Gillett said they might be missing
the significance of Tuesday's announcement.
"Siri and iCloud transcend the hardware," he said. "It's easy to get caught up in the debate over whether this was the best smartphone Apple could have come up with. But this isn't simply about smartphones. It's about the entire Apple ecosystem, and you need to understand how its engineers continue to expand and deepen it."
Even Siri didn't excite everyone. After all, voice recognition has increasingly become a standard feature in mobile technology. Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gardner Research who is on a business trip in Tasmania, said, "Technically, Siri looks a little underwhelming to me, even from halfway across the world. I might use voice recognition in my car, assuming it works
perfectly. But it's not something I'll use all the time. I'm sure Siri is great, but how useful is it?"
Some observers said Apple was simply repeating its tradition of upgrading the software and internal features of a product before doing a major remake of its exterior. Apple gave no indication of when the iPhone 5 would be released.
"This phone is better than the iPhone 4 in many ways, even though it looks the same," said Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis on hand for the unveiling before several hundred reporters, bloggers, analysts and other guests. "Sales will be wildly successful, but Apple fanboys' expectations probably were not met today."
The new phone, which will be available in the United States Oct. 14 with pre-orders taken starting Friday, will cost $199 for a 16-gigabyte version, $299 for the 32 GB and $399 for the 64 GB.
The rumored device had been center stage in the tech blogosphere for months, as pundits weighed in with what they saw as the most likely bells and whistles Apple would unleash. On Tuesday, some were surprised by how wrong many had been.
The phone that everyone thought would be thinner than the iPhone 4 resembled its older sibling. But it's much faster, thanks to the A5 chip inside it, and it has plenty of consumer-pleasing attributes. The 4S has an improved camera with a higher resolution sensor. And it's a "world phone," meaning that it will work on the networks of domestic CDMA carriers as well as GSM carriers worldwide.
For the first time, it will be available with two-year contracts not only through AT&T and Verizon but through Sprint.
Cook and his fellow executives also unveiled new alert and text-messaging features for Apple's next version of iOS -- iOS 5 -- the operating system that powers iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches.
"Look at each of these features and they're great in and of themselves," said Cook, looking relaxed onstage in black jeans and a black, long-sleeve shirt. "But what sets them apart and puts Apple way out front is how they're engineered to work together so well. Only Apple could make such amazing software, hardware and services and bring them together in such a powerful yet integrated experience."
Cook seemed at ease during his first major appearance onstage as Apple's CEO, sharing the presentation with several of his colleagues. He is, of course, no Jobs, who had a contagious and even mischievous sort of enthusiasm during product rollouts. Nor did Cook try to be Jobs.
"There are no bigger shoes to fill than Steve Jobs' and it would be unreasonable to expect Cook or anyone else to slide into that job easily," said analyst John Jackson with CCS Insight. "Today's event heralds a certain cultural change that at some level was unavoidable. I think Cook did a good job, even if he didn't set the world on fire."