Calm Down about the iPhone 4S: We Do Not Need a New Case Design.

Yesterday Apple finally showed us their latest iPhone – the “4S”. Now there are already people going on about how disappointed they are, just because it looks the same. And it is not the iPhone 5, so it can’t be all that great right? But here are a few points to consider:
The”old”  iPhone 4 still sports the best industrial design on the market, even after more than a year. It simply oozes class – glass and steel, and almost no plastic to be seen. This is a luxury device, and it should feel that way. So that 16 months should have given its competitors a decent amount of time to catch up right? Yet the other smartphone manufacturers still do not get it. The big “iPhone killer”, the Samsung Galaxy S2 (which I did actually like, see our review here) still continues to stick to cheap feeling plastic. Brilliant phone, but I’m sorry, R6000+ for a phone made of plastic? No thanks. The only other recently released phone which really does feel up to standard in terms of building materials is the Blackberry 9900.
Now sure, you could have expected Apple to design a new case for the iPhone, which would have instantly made your friends notice that you have the iPhone (5?). But this has never been Apple’s strategy. Apple did something similiar when they released their 3rd iPhone, the 3GS. It looked exactly the same as the iPhone 3G, and people were also peeved. But anyone who has ever used both the 3G and 3GS would know what massive differences there was between the devices.
Apple does not only do it with their iPhones – their PC lineup has also recently shifted to a more evolutionary design principle. Take for example the Macbook Pro – arguably still one of the best looking laptops out there. Its unibody designed casing is still considered groundbreaking in the current PC market, yet that exact same design arrived on the market in 2008. Since then, the insides of the machines have changed a lot of course. Even though the look (from a look and feel perspective) has not changed, it has already gone through 4 hardware revisions since 2008. Same for iMac – the basic design of the computer has pretty much stayed the same. Hell – I am willing to bet Apple will stick to the Mac Pro’s current outer design as well, as they have done until now. This strategy also leads people to being able to quickly identify Apple hardware, leading to almost iconic designs – just think about the iMac. If you look past the Apple logo, many people can instantly recognize a piece of Apple hardware, regardless of whether it is 1 or 4 years old. Why? Because they do not have to change all the time.
The inside of the iPhone 4S is actually brand new as well. Replacing the processor in a a compact device like this is not as simple as dropping in a new piece of silicon. It requires significant interior architectural changes. While we will have to wait for iFixit to break it down, it is pretty certain that almost no internal parts will be carried over. The 4S is also a world phone – meaning it can work as both a GSM and CDMA device. While it does not really affect most countries outside the US, it is a significant achievement to build this design into such a compact design. The phone also sports 14.4 Mbps, which many other brands refer to as “4G”.
While I do not use my phone too much for photos, Apple also stuck a 8MP backlit CMOS sensor in there. Perhaps more significantly, the lenses are rejigged to an aperture of f2.8, which will let in a bit more light. Apple boasts about how great this new camera is, but the fact remains –  a camera is one of those things that you have to wait for for hands on reviews before you can believe anything. The new camera does record 1080p video at 30fps though, and quite smartly uses the gyrometer to prevent camera shake.
There is one feature many people would have liked to see though – a slightly larger screen. If you have ever used the new Samsung Galaxy S2, you would know what I mean. Switching on that gorgeous 4.3 inch display just makes you wonder why Apple sticks to its smaller 3.5 inch display. But then yesterday I came across a post by Dustin Curtis. He was using his Galaxy S2 while walking down the street, and he noticed one problem with having that lovely big screen on your phone. Using your phone with one hand is pretty difficult – you cannot reach all the corners with your thumb, whereas with the 3.5 inch display this is not the case. “This is an example of one of those design decisions that you don‘t usually notice until you see someone doing it wrong.” Makes you think.

"This is an example of one of those design decisions that you don‘t usually notice until you see someone doing it wrong."

While Apple’s hardware has always been pretty great, and they manage to keep up with internal hardware trends, they have always also focussed on the software which ties in with that newfound power inside. This time was no exception. The standout feature is Siri, a personal assistant that works with voice recognition. Yeah, you might have read about Siri in the past, or have seen the live bloggers talking about Siri, but you really have to see the video to understand how incredible this is:

While Google might have had some voice recognition services on the Android until now most of that was reliant on capturing your voice, sending it to a server, interpreting it, and then sending you the reply. Siri has some online elements built in (for example if you want to use online services like Weather, Yelp or Wolfram Alpha), but the actual voice recognition happens on device. Think about it this way – you can tell the phone: “Remind me the pick up Jim’s gift when I get at home”.  A few minutes later you arrive in your driveway and your phone reminds you about it. Simple and easy. The rest of the iPhone 4S features are pretty much coming to other iPhones as well with iOS5 and iCloud, so I will not go on too much about that.
This time Apple has focussed on the software, and made an almost complete redesign invisible to us. The fact of the matter is that Apple has never followed the idea that any new device needs an all new outer design like every other gadget manufacturer.
If the design is good enough, why should it be changed?