iPhone 4S: the Siri personal assistant is the key app
The company that created the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad has set a pretty high bar for itself. Apple did not invent the MP3 player, the touchscreen mobile phone or the tablet computer but they brought those products to a mainstream audience.
So when Apple announces, as it did earlier this week, that its new phone looks like the old one but is faster, there are bound to be a few disappointed observers. Where is the magical new device?
"It's an evolutionary step," says Adam Leach, principle analyst at Ovum, "a mid-term product refresh so we're not seeing anything startlingly new."
Probably the most impressive aspect of the iPhone 4S is Siri, the "humble personal assistant" software. You can tell Siri to set your alarm, sent a text message or an email or even ask it to search for something online and it will do it for you. It even takes dictation.
Siri, is the product of a start-up that Apple bought last year, and though it sounds like the kind of voice control system that a lot of other mobile handsets offer, the company says its a lot more powerful.
Norman Winarsky, one of the founders of Siri, said earlier this week: "Apple is ‘mainstreaming’ artificial intelligence in the form of a virtual personal assistant is a groundbreaking event. I’d go so far as to say it is a world-changing event. Right now a few people dabble in partial AI-enabled apps like Google Voice Actions, Vlingo or Nuance Go. Siri was many iterations ahead of these technologies, or at least it was two years ago. This is real AI with real market use."
Winarsky added: "We’re talking another technology revolution. A new computing paradigm shift."
If Winarsky, who did not join Apple when it bought Siri, is right, then this could turn out to be the magical feature for which iPhone fans were hoping. Certainly, it performed well in my hands-on test but the real question is how it will perform in the real world.
The iPhone 4 doesn't feel slow until you use an iPhone 4S. The difference is clear when using apps such as the camera, which opens and is ready to take a photo or shoot video in far less time than the iPhone 4. It is an improvement similar to the jump from iPad to iPad 2. Those people who have to have the latest gadget will upgrade to the new one but many iPhone 4 users may be happy to wait.
"This seems to be targetted at getting 3GS users to upgrade," says Adam Leach. Half of all iPhone owners are on the iPhone 4 so that leaves half with an older model. Apple will be keen to ensure that that those users aren't lured away to an Android handset or a Windows Phone.
That might not be too much of a risk. According to Comscore, 65 per cent of iPhone owners upgraded from an Apple handset. Only BlackBerry users are more loyal: almost 70 per cent of them said their previous phone was also a BlackBerry.
Nevertheless, Android - the mobile operating system owned by Google that powers handsets from a range of manufacturers - now holds 48 per cent of the UK smartphone market, according to Kantar Worldpanel. Competition for the title of 'flagship' Android device is always fierce and Samsung's Galaxy S2 is currently in pole position. A new Google-backed Samsung handset, thought to be called the Nexus Prime, is expected to be launched in California next week.
It's not just about specs, says Leach. "There are perhaps some Android devices that are of a higher spec. But it's not just about the spec. The iPhone gives a class-leading user experience and these improvements will help that. The Android experience can vary by manufacturer."
A common complaint among Android users is the delay in getting updates to the operating system. Different manufacturers and networks release them at different speeds and unless you are savvy enough to 'root' your phone - which gives you administrative control over your handset - then you could be in for a long wait.
The new version of Apple's iOS operating system, which runs the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, will be released next week. It brings features such as Newsstand – a home for your newspaper and magazine subscriptions – and iMessage, which lets Apple users message each other free, as well as a much-needed new notifications system.
Though Siri is exclusive to the iPhone 4S, iOS 5 will run on the iPhone 4 and 3GS, as well as the iPad and recent iPod touch models. The new features will make Apple users feel like they have a new phone, even if they decide to pass on the iPhone 4S.