The all-geek jury has come back with an early verdict: Demand for the iPhone 4S is sky high.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, given the tepid reviews at the iPhone 4S launch last week. The iPhone 4S doesn’t support 4G networks nor did it flash a fancy redesign. Perhaps worst of all, the phone wasn’t called the iPhone 5.
Nevertheless, sales for the iPhone 4S began in earnest last Friday, with more than a million preorders taken within 24 hours. The time it will take now for an iPhone 4S to be shipped to your house is in the order of weeks. Or you can brave the long lines almost certain to form at Apple Stores this Friday, when the iPhone 4S actually ships.
So what’s gotten customers in a frenzy over an iPhone upgrade that’s minimal at best?
Maybe we’re looking at a horde of iPhone newbies on the Sprint wireless network. Sprint will be carrying the iPhone for the first time, opening up a new market. Sprint customers will need to get up to speed on the ins and outs of the iPhone.
Then again, Verizon iPhone owners won’t be upgrading to the iPhone 4S because they’re in the early half of a two-year contract; the iPhone 4 debuted on Verizon earlier this year. Do Sprint newbies and Verizon non-upgraders cancel each other out? For sure, there’s iPhone sales synergy in the form of choice—AT&T, Verizon, Sprint— but I doubt that’s the story behind pent up demand.
Let’s be clear: The iPhone 4S is not a bad upgrade. There is a lot in the iPhone 4S for business executives. Rather, the iPhone did not live up to the marketing hype for consumers, many of whom anxiously anticipated an entirely new iPhone 5.
“The press was disappointed and those that see the phone as a fashion item or a status symbol were disappointed,” says Gartner analyst Van Baker. “Those that actually want to use the phone are obviously pretty happy as it is pretty much completely new on the inside.”
The biggest consumer-facing upgrade is the artificial intelligence built into iOS and running on the powerful iPhone 4S’ dual processor A5 chip, the same one in the iPad. The voice-recognition technology, called Siri, is supposed to be your virtual personal assistant, a high-tech twist on the imaginary friend who’ll actually listen to you. That’s right, you can ask all sorts of questions and perform an array of everyday tasks.
It’s unlikely, though, that consumers are flocking to the iPhone 4S for Siri. Although Siri exists today as an iPhone app, the geek-filled jury is still out on whether or not Apple can fulfill the lofty promise of voice-recognition that’s on par with, or at least a leap towards, the famous Star Trek computer.
So how do you justify shelling out a couple hundred dollars ($199 for 16GB, $299 for 32GB, $399 for 64GB) for the iPhone 4S? Here are three reasons:
Smile, You’re On the iPhone 4S Camera!
Apple was very clear about its much-improved iPhone 4S camera: It competes against standalone point-and-shoot cameras, not other smartphone cameras. The iPhone 4S camera boasts eight megapixels, compared to the iPhone 4 camera’s five megapixels, and has a better lens, wider f/2.4 aperture, and amazingly shoots video at 1080p HD—all resulting in sharper, brighter images.
In layman’s terms, you could blow up a photo taken with the iPhone 4S to the size of a sheet of paper (8.5-by-11 inches), and it will still look great.
A typical consumer will spend more than $100 for a good point-and-shoot compact camera, which is a little less than the starting cost of the iPhone 4S with a two-year contract. Sure, the Canon PowerShot ELPH 300 HS, which shoots images at an astounding 12.1 megapixels and retails for $160, is superior to the iPhone 4S camera, but it also means you’ll have to carry two devices—a smartphone and a camera. (The PowerShot ELPH 300 is about the same size as the iPhone.)
The few people I spoke to who pre-ordered an iPhone 4S said the camera was a big factor in their purchasing decision. Obviously, cameras are big for consumers. It’s also one of the main reasons why I’m thinking about upgrading my iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4S.
iPhone 3GS Users: Time for an Upgrade
Speaking of the iPhone 3GS, one could argue that this model has been the best of the iPhone series. Many iPhone owners really bought into the Apple ecosystem with the iPhone 3GS. The phone’s stability and reliability (read: connectivity and battery life) boasted the best in the smartphone business. Apps during the iPhone 3GS heyday reached a new level in quality and usefulness.
Simply put, the iPhone 3GS was the best iPhone at the right time. There are still millions of iPhone 3GS owners out there.
Early iPhone 3GS owners were on the cusp of their two-year contracts when the iPhone 4 debuted (although AT&T offered an upgrade path for iPhone users still under contract). Many chose to take a wait-and-see approach with the new iPhone 4 design, given that the design was more susceptible to breakage. During the infamous “antennagate,” iPhone 3GS owners were no doubt glad they had waited.
Meanwhile, later iPhone 3GS buyers were out of the iPhone 4 market, much like Verizon iPhone 4 users are today with the iPhone 4S, because of their contracts.
Now the timing of the matured iPhone 4S product is perfect for iPhone 3GS owners to upgrade.
iOS Reaches Critical Mass
Just how much the evolution of the iOS platform has contributed to iPhone 4S sales is anyone’s guess. But the good bet is that iOS has reached critical mass, not necessarily in user numbers (although a case can be made there) but in the apps and services around it.
This week will mark the debut of iCloud and the next-generation iOS 5. The iPad has been growing like gangbusters since its arrival 18 months ago. The Apple App Store makes rival smartphone and tablet app stores look like Quik Marts. Anyone with an iPad or iPhone is now pretty much entrenched with the apps and iTunes.
Then there’s the much-talked about Apple halo effect. Walk into an Apple Store for, say, an iPad 2 cover case, and walk out with a shiny new MacBook. Or an iPhone 4S, although you’ll have to wait in the long line outside. You’ve just become part of the Apple family.
That’s not to say the iPhone 4S doesn’t face heavy competition from other smartphones, namely Android devices. Android smartphones have a fast-evolving app store and offer a cool user experience. They are collectively outselling iPhones, although the iPhone is the top selling smartphone compared to any single manufacturer.
The difference is that customers aren’t just buying an iPhone 4S, they’re buying into an ecosystem. And in a platform war, iOS is head and shoulders above Android, which has many flavors of the OS, leaky security, and an abysmal tablet offering (the recent arrival of the Amazon Kindle Fire may change that).
With more than a million pre-orders of iPhone 4S in the first 24 hours, the verdict is in: “Sales are up over 60 percent from the iPhone 4 first day,” says Gartner’s Baker. “As for who is buying it, I think it is selling to all segments. It would have to [in order to] achieve these numbers.”
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.