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Apple Debuts iPhone 4S

by Mark W. Hibben
10/7/2011

The Tech Media are Underwhelmed

The Apple Town Hall had barely emptied of tech reporters when articles began appearing decrying the latest iPhone 4S as disappointing and non-revolutionary.  The sniping continued until the news of the untimely, though not unexpected, death of Steve Jobs the following day, whereupon the tone of the media became properly reverential.  At least the eulogies have it more or less right:  Steve was a great leader, a great technologist, and a great businessman, and he will be sorely missed.  But as usual, the media have missed the significance of the iPhone 4S event, fixated as they so often are on appearances.  Among other things, Steve Jobs artfully mastered this media fixation and turned it to Apple’s advantage.  Although he tried hard to put on a good show, Tim Cook has yet to achieve such mastery.

Back in the 7/29/11 edition of Tech Chat I made some predictions for the next iPhone, which I called iPhone 5.  Aside from getting the name wrong, I didn’t do too badly.  On the next panel is a summary of the predictions compared to reality.

iPhone Feature Prediction Reality
Name iPhone 5 iPhone 4S
Processor Apple A5 dual core processor Apple A5 dual core processor
Screen 960x640 “Retina Display” 960x640 “Retina Display” held over from iP4
Position Sensors Gyro, Accelerometer, Compass, GPS Gyro, Accelerometer, Compass, GPS basically the same capability as iP4.  There may be some individual device changes not yet disclosed by Apple.
Front Camera Facetime VGA capable Appears unchanged from iP4 based on published Apple specs.
Rear Camera 8 Mpixel still, 720p/30fps video record, LED flash 8 Mpixel still, 1080p/30fps HD video.  LED flash.  Here, the upgrade to 1080p video recording is truly welcome.  Apple also improved the optics for sharper pictures and better sensitivity. 
Antenna designs Continuation of iP4 external frame approach but with larger insulating gaps between the cellular and WiFi antennas to minimize "finger bridging" effects.  iP4 external frame antenna design continued unchanged.  Apple appears to have addressed the antenna reception issues of the iP4 with their “antenna switching” concept that allows the phone to switch between the two antennas depending on which has better reception.
Video Output via Apple Digital AV adapter 1080p video mirroring, 720p. Essentially the same capability as iPad 2.  As predicted.  This was an easy one given that iPhone 4S uses the A5, which has an integrated graphics processor.
Video Output via AirPlay Video output through AirPlay Airplay under iOS 5 provides for streaming of movies and video mirroring at 720p. 
Back cover Fiberglass reinforced ABS in your choice of white or black. Gorilla glass back cover identical to iP4. 
Front cover Glass, white or black frame Glass, white or black frame
Networks GSM and CDMA models to be available simultaneously. AT&T and Verizon models only. GSM and CDMA chipsets are incorporated into the same phone. Sprint added to AT&T and Verizon. 

I’m still left wondering why a device that features the A5 processor, runs iOS 5, nevertheless could not be named iPhone 5.  But this is consistent with past Apple device naming convention, which appears to mandate that a device only gets a new number when the exterior design is changed.

Unchanged Exterior

Why the iPhone exterior hasn’t changed is perhaps a more interesting question.  The key structural element of the iPhone is the external stainless steel frame, which also serves as the antennas.  The frame is manufactured by computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling machines.  These days, such machining processes are tightly integrated with computer aided design (CAD) software, so that if a design change is made by a mechanical designer or engineer, that change can usually be translated into CNC machining with only moderate additional effort.  This provides for flexible manufacturing and low cost for runs of small numbers of parts.  That being the case, I have to wonder why Apple didn’t change the design of the frame, given the problems people were having with the antenna reception for iP4.  Yes, I know Apple claimed that the problem was more apparent than real because of a software bug that caused signal strength to be incorrectly calculated and displayed.  Nevertheless, numerous independent tests confirmed that signal strength changes as a consequence of how the phone was held were real.  There were simple changes to the exterior structure, the frame and the glass back, that could have addressed consumer complaints about signal strength, dropped calls, and breakage of the glass back, that Apple chose not to make.  One can only infer that Apple and its suppliers made a very long term commitment to the design, either in terms of supplier contracts or parts inventories, that requires that Apple keep using the existing iPhone 4 design unchanged.  This was probably a mistake on Apple’s part, and reveals a shortcoming of being wholly dependent on external suppliers for key products such as the iPhone. 

Revamped Interior

On the inside iPhone 4S is all new, and it’s all good.  The main goodness derives from the Apple A5 processor, the same as used on the iPad 2.  In effect, iPhone has become a palm sized iPad 2 that you can make calls with.  The A5 is an Apple designed system-on-a-chip (SOC) that has dual processing cores and also incorporates the graphics processor.  It’s getting to the point where the circuit card in these devices is barely large enough to hold the SOC and a few auxiliary chips, since so much functionality is integrated in the SOC.  Apple claims that the A5 is “up to twice as fast” as the A4, which only had a single processing core, but this is a theoretical limit rarely achieved by real life software.  Real life performance will put the A5 at about 50% faster than the A4, still very respectable.  Using the A5 also endows the iP4S with the same graphics output capabilities as the iPad 2.  Tired of squinting at your “Retina Display”?  You can now mirror your screen to any high def TV using the Apple Digital AV Adapter and a standard HDMI cable at full 1080p resolution.  If you have the latest Apple TV, you don’t even need a cable, you can mirror through the Apple TV using AirPlay at 720p.   Cabled or wireless, you can stream all your iTunes video content at 720p.

You’ll be likely to have more self-created HD video content as well, since the iPhone 4S finally has a decent HD camera.  While the front facing (Facetime) camera appears to be unchanged, the back facing camera is all new.  It can take beautiful 8 Mpixel stills and full 1080p video at 30 frames/sec.  This is the camera I wish had been put into the iPad 2 (along with an HD display).  The sensor focal plane is the latest “backside illuminated” technology.  This means that the sensor is more sensitive in low light and produces less noise (visible in low light conditions as a sort of colored snow overlay).  Along with the better sensor, the optics have been redesigned to let in more light, as well as produce a sharper image.  The camera interfaces to the A5 through the A5’s built in image processing system (IPS) which can enhance the camera image still further by reducing noise, sensor artifacts such as herringbone patterns, and improve contrast.  Added to this is Apple’s camera control and image enhancement software, which can serve to enhance the image while you’re taking it as well as after.   In general, the cameras on smart phones are getting better and better, so that the days of the standalone compact camera may be numbered. 

As good as the iP4S is, it’s not the only smart phone with a dual core ARM processor, which may account for some of the lack of excitement in the tech media.  Competing dual core phones include the Motorola Atrix 4G and Samsung Galaxy S II.  Having committed to the ARM architecture for their smartphones and tablets, Apple really has no means of getting out in front of the rest of the industry.  Competitors will generally have equivalent processor capability compared to Apple, because everyone is tied to ARM’s source designs, and paced by ARM’s development progress.  I’ve advocated that Apple strike out on their own and create truly unique processor designs, rather than licensing ARM, but for the time being, Apple is playing it safe.  Too bad, because Apple certainly has the money to invest in their own design capability. What of Apple’s claims to having “designed” the A5?  By now, we all know what that really means.  Apple chooses which component designs to license for things like processing and graphics cores, then lays them out on the SOC and has Samsung build the resultant design.  Apple can and should do much more, considering the huge pile of cash (over US$ 75 B as of fiscal Q3) they have amassed.  For the time being, Apple seem content to rest on the laurels of their superior mobile OS and OS/hardware integration.  This is a mistake. 

Even Better OS

iPhone 4S ships with iOS 5, which was extensively described in our article on the Apple WWDC 2011.  For the iPhone 4S Special Event, Scott Forstall came out and gave a shortened version of the talk he gave at WWDC.  iOS 5 integrates iCloud, so that all purchased apps and music are automatically pushed to all iOS and Mac devices.  If you happen to lose an app or a tune, no worries, iCloud replaces the lost content free of charge.  iOS 5 also features a completely revamped push notification system, another iCloud service, and a built in iOS app called the Notification Center for managing notifications. 

Safari, Mail, and iMessage have been revised, and of course, iCloud automatically pushes all messages to all your devices.  New features include Newsstand, an iBook-like organizer for magazine and newspaper subscriptions, and Reminder, a sophisticated to-do list app that can use time or your location to trigger reminders.  As I already mentioned, iOS 5 supports AirPlay video mirroring through Apple TV to a large screen display.  This will allow the iPhone 4S to be used as a real time wireless controller in game play while the user can enjoy the game on a large screen TV.

Siri-ous Cloud

This past year, as both Microsoft and Apple have hyped their cloud computing offerings, I’ve been lukewarm to the idea.  Yeah, it offers some convenience, and the on-line storage may prove useful, but the App Store and iTunes already were cloud services in effect.  iCloud just seemed to knit everything together into a nice neat package.  Nothing wrong with that, but nothing to get excited about either.  So far, clouds have mainly been about selling products and services, hardly new for the Internet.  Furthermore, many of those products and service were merely substitutes for PC based products and services, which you wouldn’t need if you have some form of Mac or Windows PC.  Five GB of cloud storage isn’t really too exciting, or useful, if you have a 1 TB NAS next to your PC at home.  Likewise, with a copy of Office on your home machine, Office 365 is mostly redundant.   My point is, what cloud computing has needed is a killer app.  The more I think about it, the more Siri looks like that killer app.

Siri is a voice recognition and control program integrated into iOS 5.  Pressing and holding the home button on the phone brings up the Siri interface.  Talking into the phone microphone allows the user to command various iPhone functions such as making calls or scheduling appointments.  Like the Dragon Dictation app for iOS, Siri relies on the cloud for most of the computational heavy lifting.  Where Siri sets itself apart from other speech recognition programs is its ability to interpret natural speech and to understand context as a person would.  This was very convincingly demonstrated by Scott Forstall towards the end of the Special Event.  He was able to ask for a weather report in various ways, including “Will I need a rain coat today?” and have Siri respond appropriately.  Although still in beta, Siri was far more impressive than the speech recognition demonstration on Kinect recently given at the Microsoft FAM.  Siri’s integration in iOS is currently limited, but I imagine that in the near future (think months not years), iOS users will be able to control virtually any aspect of their systems by voice. 

  • 1.
    Under- whelmed
  • 2.
    Score Card
  • 3.
    iP4S Outside
  • 4.
    iP4S Inside
  • 5.
    Dual Core Phones
  • 6.
    Siri-ous Cloud
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