History of the iPhone 4S: The most amazing iPhone yet
The story of the iPhone, continuing with the 2011 iPhone 4S, which upped the camera ante and introduced the world to Siri
Nothing about 2011 was normal for Apple. Tim Cook had introduced the Verizon iPhone 4 at the beginning of the year and Apple had finally shipped the white iPhone 4 by spring. But unlike previous years, WWDC 2011 came and went with nary a mention nor a glimpse of a new iPhone. Steve Jobs went on medical leave again, and in August resigned as CEO. He passed away on October 5, 2011. Just the day before Apple's new CEO, Tim Cook, SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller, and other executives valiantly took the stage at a special media called "Let's Talk iPhone". There, under tremendous emotional strain, they introduced the most amazing iPhone yet. The iPhone 4S.
“iPhone 4S plus iOS 5 plus iCloud is a breakthrough combination that makes the iPhone 4S the best iPhone ever,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. “While our competitors try to imitate iPhone with a checklist of features, only iPhone can deliver these breakthrough innovations that work seamlessly together.”
Previously there had only been about a year between different iPhone models. They launched every June or July from 2007 to 2010. Whether Verizon and their customers were given more time with the iPhone 4, or whether features like iCloud or Siri took more time develop, or whether Apple simply wanted to move the iPhone from summer to fall to replace the slowing iPod line in the all important pre-holiday quarter, or some confluence of all of those things is uncertain. What is certain is that the gap between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S is currently the largest in the product's history.
16 months in the making
The iPhone 4S, codename N94 and model number iPhone4,1, for the second time, kept the same basic design on the market as the iPhone before it, concentrating instead on improving the internal components. It was the first indication Apple was following a "tick tock" product cycle with the iPhone. For the iPhone 4S, it meant the same 960x480 326ppi Retina display and IPS LED panel. It also had the same composition, with two layers of chemically hardened glass sandwiched on either side of a stainless steel antenna band.
The antenna band itself, which had proven problematic on the iPhone 4, was improved. It had the same configuration as the Verizon iPhone 4, but Apple split it into two components and enabled it to intelligent switch between transmit and receive to avoid attenuation and detuning both. Even while on a call. While CDMA EVDO Rev A data speeds had already been maxed out - given slow it was to begin with - Apple boosted the UMTS/HSPA speed to 14.4mbps. (They refused to humor the idea that there were "4G" speeds, however.)
The new Qualcomm RTR8605 chipset was dual-mode, however, so even the Verizon (and later Sprint) CDMA models could work on GSM internationally, making the iPhone 4S Apple's first "world phone".
Wi-Fi stayed the same at 802.11 b/g/n on 2.4Mhz, but aGPS was augmented by Russian GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), and Bluetooth jumped to 4.0 with support for both high-speed (HS) and low-engery (LE) modes. Typically radio-conservative Apple was making a big bet on the future of Bluetooth, and none at all on NFC (near-field communications).
As was becoming the pattern with S-class upgrades, the processor got a significant boost - a version of the Apple A5 system-on-a-chip (SoC) that debuted with the iPad 2 earlier in the year. The A5 featured a dual-core Cortex A9 central processing unit with Imagination's dual-core PowerVR SGX 543MP2 graphics processing unit. Apple claimed a 2x general speed improvement and a 7x graphics improvement.
All of this helped enable features like AirPlay mirroring, which let the iPhone project its interface to the Apple TV, and Siri, which replaced the previous Voice Control feature with a full-on virtual digital assistant feature powered by natural language, and a Pixar-like personality. Unfortunately, network issues plagued Siri at launch, and well after. The debate as to whether or not to release Siri with the iPhone 4S was rumored to have lasted up until just before launch. Key parts of the technology were licensed from Nuance, however, and Apple historically had less expertise in services than they did in hardware and software, resulting in multiple points of pain for them, and for users.
Apple stuck with the same 512MB of RAM, however, but did introduce a new 64GB storage option. The battery got a slight improvement as well, up to 1430mAh, but it resulted in 8 hours of usable battery life for 3G talk, but a reduction in standby time.
An infrared sensor was added to enable Siri's raise to speak feature, but otherwise the sensors remained the same.
The front-facing camera retained the same, paltry VGA sensor. The rear-facing camera, however, got a lot of attention. It was increased to 8 megapixels and 1080p. The backlit sensor was improved, the aperture brought to f2.4, and made wide angle to capture more of a scene. They also added a 5th piece of glass to the assembly to increase sharpness, and an infrared filter to improve colors. The bigger news was the ISP (image signal processor) in the Apple A5 processor. It took the images captured by the camera and provided facial recognition for more specific automatic focus, and post-processing for much better white-balanced, stabilized, photos and video. It did, however, seem to find macro focus more of a challenge.
Pricing again stayed the same, starting at $199 and $299, with the new, larger capacity model sliding in right on top at $399.
The cross-roads of technology
The iPhone 4S launched on October 14, 2011 in the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K, France, Germany, and Japan. It reached 70 countries and 100 carriers by the end of 2011. It sold 4 million units the first weekend. Apple:
“iPhone 4S is off to a great start with more than four million sold in its first weekend—the most ever for a phone and more than double the iPhone 4 launch during its first three days,” said Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. “iPhone 4S is a hit with customers around the world, and together with iOS 5 and iCloud, is the best iPhone ever.”
As usual, it was meant as the first iPhone for new users, or an upgrade for iPhone 3GS users coming off contract (albeit a few months late). Although there were some who felt the upgrade wasn't big enough - or visible enough - in general reviews were, typically, excellent. Andy Ihnatko for the Chicago Sun Times:
The iPhone isn’t hands-down the greatest phone in the world. A handset is too idiosyncratic a device for any sort of “one model fits all” statement. The camera has been improved in a way that makes for better photos, not for better appearances on a feature comparison chart. Siri’s goal isn’t to give the iPhone mere parity with the voice control features of other phones; it’s to create a new paradigm for mobile phone interfaces.
John Gruber on Daring Fireball:
This is the easiest product review I’ve ever written. The iPhone 4S is exactly what Apple says it is: just like the iPhone 4, but noticeably faster, with a significantly improved camera, and an impressive new voice-driven feature called Siri.
Yours truly on iMore:
Again, I can't help but come back to Steve Jobs, the man whose vision and singular will drove Apple to create the future of consumer electronics, device by device, app by app, culminating in the iPhone 4S announced just a day before his passing.
Like Jobs did, it stands at the juncture of technology and liberal arts, powerful and yet accessible, capable and yet beautiful, incremental new hardware brought to life by ambitious new software.
It's certainly not the device for everybody, but increasingly the iPhone is the device for most people.
The iPhone 4 has been great, but had paid the "Retina tax" when it came to performance with that many pixels. The iPhone 4S once again brought performance back up, and rounded it out with better and more innovative features.
By 2011, HP was destroying webOS from within, Windows Phone was still struggling to find its place in the market, and BlackBerry was wasting their time with the ill-fated PlayBook project. Android, however, was exploding. For differentiation, some went to faster 4G LTE before Apple, though it shredded battery life, even when larger bodies (and the screens to go with them) were used to mitigate against the power-hungry chipsets. That would eventually lead to screen size itself as a differentiator and trend.
Though the iPhone finally made it to Verizon in February of that year, all those years of exclusivity on AT&T had created tremendous opportunity for the right competition. It turned out that right competition was something that tried to look as much like an iPhone as possible, and could be sold to people who really wanted an iPhone, but not enough to switch to AT&T. That competition was Samsung. In April of 2011, Apple sued for patent and trade-dress infringement.
"Rather than innovate and develop its own technology and a unique Samsung style for its smart phone products and computer tablets, Samsung chose to copy Apple's technology, user interface and innovative style in these infringing products."
They claimed Samsung deliberately copied the iPhone (and iPad) to benefit from the marketing and consumer confidence Apple had worked hard for years to attain. While Apple didn't sue Google directly over Android, sentiment at Apple was basically that they'd been partners with both - Samsung in manufacturing and Google in services - had taught both how to make iPhone-class smartphones, and then watched in horror as both betrayed them and turned from partners into competitors.
Where Microsoft was content to settle for licensing fees from almost all Android manufacturers, Apple was not. By virtue of their patents, Microsoft wanted to make Android more expensive, Apple wanted to make it less user-friendly. Business was business, but Apple - and Steve Jobs - took it personally. They'd been there before, after all, with Microsoft, the Mac, and Windows, and they'd lost the PC market, they felt, because of it.
"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong," Jobs said. "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this." [...] "I don't want your money. If you offer me $5 billion, I won't want it. I've got plenty of money. I want you to stop using our ideas in Android, that's all I want."
Google claimed Apple would rather litigate than innovate. Unfortunately for Google, Apple was intent on doing both. Hypocritically for Google, their Motorola acquisition would come with plenty of lawsuits all its own, lawsuits Google didn't abandon, and lawsuits over standards-essential patents - those pledged under fair, reasonable, and non-descriminatory terms and necessary to access data networks for example - whose litigation has resulted in anti-trust investigations due to their abusive nature. Samsung likewise retaliated with standards-essential patents, with Apple arguing both companies wanted access to Apple's proprietary patents in exchange.
That Samsung slavishly copied Apple while ramping up their own product line is indisputable. Product after product bore unmistakable, embarrassing similarity to Apple's. The question was whether or not the copying was illegal. If it was, Samsung would be on the line for billions of dollars in damages. If it wasn't, Samsung would have brilliantly jumpstarted their way to smartphone dominance on Apple's dime.
Tim Cook, who took over as Apple CEO following Steve Jobs' passing in October of 2011, has held the line on the lawsuits. However, he hasn't said anything to indicate he takes them as personally as Jobs did, and there's some feeling he's more open to a settlement than Jobs was.
Tim Cook said he doesn't like litigation, but he also doesn't like other companies using what he feels are Apple innovations to sell competing products. Cook also took it a step further, saying Apple cannot become the developer for the world.
At the same time, Samsung began to launch a massive marketing campaign, targeting Apple exactly where it hurt - in brand perception and general "coolness" factor. Their market share grew and grew.
At the time of this writing, Samsung has lost a $1 billion verdict to Apple in the U.S. but appeals and other suits continue to rage globally. Samsung has since developed far more distinct, differentiated products, and had become the single largest manufacturer of the most popular operating system in mobile, and attained profit levels unseen outside Apple.
Five years later
Steve Jobs was gone, but his greatest product, Apple, remained. The iPhone 4S entered a market facing greater, more relentless, and savvier competition than ever before. Still, it established the iPhone as Apple's new holiday product, and it once again sold more than any iPhone before. It was a painful, combative, heartbreaking year for Apple, but they endured. And more than that, they had a plan...