The iPhone 4S: Strategic move or chinks in the King’s armor?

Apple announced it’s latest iPhone, the iPhone 4S, largely to critical comments from a press corps expecting the iPhone 5, and entirely new device. The phone is a gussied-up version of the company’s iPhone 4, and hardware-wise offers better “feature porn”: more gigahertz, gigabytes, and megapixels while remaining outwardly the same. The company’s flagship operating system, iOS received several noteworthy updates, but again many were evolutionary rather than magical.

The usual superlative-laced commentary was on offer, with Apple introducing “pioneering” antenna diversity, which my 1991 Nissan Maxima also prominently featured. For gadget lovers, the announcement was largely a let down, but seems a repeat of the company’s prior strategy to carefully manage new releases, essentially selling the same customer two devices, a “major” and “minor” release of sorts, rather than a single major release.

The one problem with this strategy is that the mobile world has changed quite a bit since Apple “refreshed” the iPhone 3G with the iPhone 3GS. For one thing, there are now four major mobile operating systems: Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry OS (the latter being debatable). When Apple introduced the 3GS, Android was still a new kid on the block, Microsoft was irrelevant, and Blackberry was looking a bit long in the tooth for a “smart” OS. The iPhone 3GS was a Porsche in a world of Hondas, but in October of 2011 it might be a Porsche in a world of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. An iPhone that looks the same as last years model sitting next to the latest Android with a larger screen and newer hardware makes the average consumer pause before automatically checking the iPhone box.

While I have no insider information and am going off pure speculation here, I would guess some combination of three factors are at work here:

  1. Apple is either trying to milk customers with an interim upgrade, knowing that some of those customers will buy whatever the company puts out. Good for shareholders, bad for consumers.
  2. The iPhone 5 simply isn’t ready, and Apple is sweating bullets wondering if incremental upgrades can ward off the Android assault.
  3. Apple has become arrogant or too inwardly focused, and thinks it will retain the #1 position by playing it safe.

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