The launch of the iPhone 4S was accompanied by rumblings of discontent from industry watchers. But they are missing the point of the handset, says senior reporter Natasha Lomas.

The launch of the iPhone 4S last week was overshadowed by two things. Foremost was the death of Apple’s co-founder and charismatic leader, Steve Jobs.

Jobs’ failing health had been the only cloud on Apple’s horizon in recent years. His death was not unexpected – yet its abruptness was still a shock, as Jobs only stepped down as Apple CEO in August.

The other shadow to fall on the iPhone 4S was the sense of disappointment felt by some. This was not at all surprising: the hype around Apple product launches is now so great, and the level of – mostly uttterly incorrect – speculations so furious, that anti-climax is inevitable.

Apple iPhone 4S

The iPhone 4S: Not the iPhone 5 – but not a disappointment eitherPhoto: Apple

Frankly, if Apple were to announce it had created a perpetual motion machine and also harnessed nuclear fusion to produce limitless energy – unboxing the Holy Grail as its ‘one more thing’ – the event would still be greeted by seismic rumblings of discontent.

No surprise then that the iPhone 4S launch was dubbed “disappointing” and a “damp squib”. Cupertino’s shares even dipped on the revelation that Apple had not, as expected by scores of tech watchers, brought forth the fabled iPhone 5 after all.

The tech press’ collective ‘meh’ was almost audible, not least because the gadget hounds have spent the past year predicting the arrival of the iPhone 5. And now their iPhone 5 vigil begins anew: another year of waiting, hyping and writing another thousand iPhone 5 stories. Little wonder they are blue.

But don’t be deceived by this spectre of anti-climax. There’s nothing shabby about the iPhone 4S. On the contrary, it’s a very respectable update to a very popular smartphone.

Early indications suggest mobile consumers aren’t fazed by the lack of the iPhone 5. Apple has racked up record pre-orders for its latest iPhone iteration. On Monday it announced iPhone 4S pre-orders had exceeded one million in the first 24 hours since the device was made available. This compares to 600,000 day-one pre-orders for last year’s model, the iPhone 4.

If the iPhone 4S is disappointing there are an awful lot of technology companies that can only dream of being so dismal.

But let’s play devil’s advocate and ask exactly what features gadget hounds were hoping the mythical iPhone 5 would usher in? Earlier this year,’s sister site CNET made a fine list of the top 20 most-wanted iPhone 5 features.

Top of this wish list was 4G support – a next-generation network technology that hasn’t even been rolled out in the UK, since the spectrum required to underpin it hasn’t gone under the hammer yet. So does the whole world – that is, not just the US where 4G has been rolled out – need a 4G iPhone? No, not yet.

Another coveted feature according to the list was near-field communications (NFC) – a technology that enables contactless payments and content sharing between NFC-enabled devices. Again, the infrastructure required to render NFC useful to the masses, rather than an innovative gimmick for the techie few, is not yet in place. In the UK, for instance, around 40,000 retailers accept contactless payments – so that’s an awful lot of shops that don’t.

On the NFC content-sharing front, RIM has just announced it will incorporate a ‘tap to share’ system called BlackBerry Tag into the next update of its smartphone OS. There’s no firm launch date on this – and RIM’s handset portfolio currently includes just two NFC handsets – so finding another NFC-owning BlackBerry user to contactlessly share content with is going to take considerably longer than contactlessly sharing the content itself.

Technology features in and of themselves are meaningless. What matters is whether they contribute something positive to the user experience. Which is why saying no to emerging technologies such as NFC is the right decision for Apple at this time.

It’s also why, when Apple upgraded the iPhone’s camera to eight megapixels, rather than cramming more megapixels atop the same sensor, it included a larger sensor to ensure better quality pictures – not just a spec sheet bump. Unlike other companies that play spec sheet top trumps – often in a misguided attempt to leapfrog Apple – Apple prioritises the user experience. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature – arguably Apple’s defining feature.

So let’s take a closer look at CNET’s iPhone 5 wish list

…Out of the 20 features listed as must-haves, and nice-to-haves, and not-a-chance-of-ever-having-in-an-Apple-product, around half have been delivered by the iPhone 4S. They are:

  • Enhanced voice control: via the Siri voice assistant app
  • More memory: there’s now a 64GB iPhone 4S
  • Improved homescreen and notifications system: delivered in iOS 5
  • Better cloud computing support: via Apple’s iCloud services
  • Better camera: 8 megapixels plus a larger sensor; supports macro photography, 1080p HD video recording
  • Dual-core processor: via Apple’s A5 dual-core chip
  • Improved 3D graphics: up to 2x faster CPU and up to 7x faster graphics via the new chip
  • Better battery life: up to eight hours talk time on 3G vs iPhone 4’s seven hours (albeit the 4S’ standby time is worse than the iPhone 4 – up to 200 hours vs up to 300 hours)
  • Fewer failed and dropped calls: via an improved antenna design

Still feeling disappointed? I thought not.

And here’s why – iPhone 4S disappointment is as much a chimera as the iPhone 5 has so far proved to be. There’s no substance to it, it’s all surface.

And under that familiar shiny surface, the iPhone 4S brings a raft of coveted updates. The handset holds its own against the vast majority of high-end smartphones in the market today. It’s one of a select group of dual-core smartphones, for instance, but a dual-core device that brings 2x and 7x performance bumps to processing and graphics.

Any lingering disappointment about the iPhone 4S is not down to any failing of the device. As I wrote earlier this year, smartphones have evolved to such a high standard that iterative improvements – not seismic leaps – are the order of the day.

The mobile industry desperately needed disrupting in 2007. In 2011, it’s sitting pretty thanks to Apple’s quest to turn gnomic mobile phones into user-friendly pocket computers – thereby forcing other mobile makers to do the same.

Many smartphones are already excellent. Sure they can get better – as any technology can get better – but improvements are a bonus not a bleeding necessity.

A high-end smartphone from a variety of mobile makers – not just Apple – is an amazingly powerful and capable device today. And that’s a feature of the mobile market that should disappoint no one.