Friday, 7 October 2011

IPhone Gets Its Upgrade, All Under the Hood

CUPERTINO, Calif. — Apple introduced its long-awaited new iPhone on Tuesday. But it wasn’t an iPhone 5. That will have to wait.

iPhone 4S
Tim Cook, Apple's chief executive, at the company's headquarters on Tuesday.
iPhone 4S
Philip W. Schiller, the senior vice president of product marketing, showed off some of the new features.
Instead, the company unveiled something that looks an awful lot like an iPhone 4 on the outside, with an innovative feature that turns the device into a voice-activated mobile assistant for scheduling appointments and performing other tasks.

It’s a measure of how Apple has habituated its legions of fans to regular, eye-catching design changes that the news about the latest version of the iPhone qualified as a disappointment for some. Grumbling about the announcement of the new phone, the iPhone 4S, spread on Twitter throughout the day and the company’s shares fell as much as 5 percent, though they regained most of those losses by the end of trading.
“At the end of the day, there are still going to be long lines for this,” said Gene Munster, an analyst at Piper Jaffray. “They could have been even longer if they’d changed the hardware more.”
The new model of the iPhone, which will go on sale Oct. 14, with preorders starting Friday, is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor on the outside. But beneath its skin Apple made big changes, packing it with a better camera that shoots crisper pictures and video. The device also includes a more powerful chip, the A5, the same microprocessor that is the brains of the iPad, for producing better graphics and other improvements.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, presided over the event just as Steven P. Jobs had on similar occasions before he left the top job in August. Mr. Cook said that although the iPhone 4 is the best-selling smartphone in the world, Apple believes that the company still has plenty of people it wants to convert.
“We believe over time all handsets become smartphones,” he said. “This market is 1.5 billion units annually. It’s an enormous opportunity for Apple.”

Mr. Cook and other Apple executives also highlighted an array of supporting products for the new phone, but the centerpiece of the presentation, and of the new device, is the “virtual assistant” feature, Siri, named after a company Apple acquired last year that originally developed the technology. While the iPhone 4 already responds to some basic voice commands — to make phone calls, for example — Siri is designed to comprehend a much broader range of instructions in natural language.

For example, Apple executives demonstrated the technology by asking an iPhone, “Do I need a raincoat today?” to which the device responded, “It sure looks like rain today.”

While Apple’s decision not to call its new phone the iPhone 5, as many expected, raised some eyebrows, it has some precedent. A couple of years ago the company introduced the iPhone 3GS, which made modest improvements over the iPhone 3G. Michael Mace, the chief executive of a mobile application start-up and a former Apple and Palm executive, said Apple most likely wanted to telegraph that the iPhone 4S was an incremental change to the product, rather than a big redesign denoted by a change in the model number.
“You don’t want to oversell what you’re doing so you hurt your credibility,” Mr. Mace said.

Even incremental changes to the iPhone can help sales. Mr. Munster of Piper Jaffray said the annual growth rate in the number of iPhones that Apple sold during the fiscal year the iPhone 3GS was introduced was 93 percent, compared with 78 percent when the iPhone 3G came out.

With the new phone, Apple is taking on a growing challenge in the mobile market from the Android operating system made by Google. Smartphones powered by Android now outsell iPhones by more than two to one. While Android phones also let people use basic voice commands to do simple tasks, Apple is betting that the more sophisticated capabilities of Siri will make it stand out.

Many of the best minds in technology in the last several decades have been stymied by how to decipher speech, given variations in how people talk. Mr. Mace called what Apple is doing the “holy grail” for mobile devices; voice recognition could make it much easier for people to use them on the go without having to peck words into a keyboard. But he said the technology needed to be accurate or users would ignore it.
“When you start talking to a computer you expect it to really understand you, and if it doesn’t, you get really frustrated,” he said. “If Siri is like that, forget about it.”

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