James: The iPhone 3G S is a cleverly-staged con

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Exactly 12 months since it debuted its first 3G handset, Apple has confirmed the release of a new iPhone – or four new iPhones if you count the black/white colour variants and the 16GB/32GB storage capacities of them.

The hype surrounding the new iPhone 3G S was huge, as ever; the stage-management ahead of its announcement last night (June 8) at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco was a spin. The watching public was rapt, the outgoing commercial proposition in stores was manipulated.

Speculation Apple would announce an iPhone Nano and broaden its distribution arrangements came to nothing (although the consensus among market watchers is Orange might still do a job for Apple’s UK distribution when a mass-market Nano is eventually released).

In the end, only expectation about prosaic upgrades to the existing iPhone feature set came to anything.

Behind the scenes, activity within O2 and Carphone Warehouse stores followed the same pre-launch pattern that preceded announcement of the iPhone 3G in July last year – stock was run down, the 16GB model was pulled completely (the 2G version in July 2008 and the 3G version this time around), the 8GB version was readied at a lower price point, and the premium on competitor devices was hiked.

In San Francisco, Apple boasted of “over 100 new features”. But crucially, all the improvements except for a few hardware tweaks are available to existing iPhone users through the iPhone OS 3.0 software patch – for free download from iTunes.

In terms of hardware, the new iPhone 3G S boasts essentially only five upgrades to its forbear: faster processor, better camera, improved battery life, larger memory… and a compass.

Let us deal with each of these in turn. The new processor supports 7.2Mbps HSDPA (the ‘S’ in the product name is for ‘speed’), to load and run applications quicker. Fine. Except if you are on O2 in the UK, in which case its turbo-charged engine counts for little. As O2 notes in the small print of its press release: “O2’s 3G network covers over 80 per cent of the UK population and is fully HSDPA-enabled, providing speeds of up to 1.8 MBps.”

Which means, customers are restricted on speed – even the iPhone 3G enables download speeds of 3.6Mbps, which cannot be achieved anywhere on O2’s network.

We then have a series of minor adjustments in the iPhone 3G S, which are detailed in the announcement like giant steps.

It boasts a 3 megapixel autofocus camera – a whole megapixel better than the iPhone 3G version. Sure, the camera resolution is an improvement, as is the inclusion of certain image-capture trickery  (“macro mode and auto white balance”).

But really, such modifications are slight – iPhone camera features remain closer to those of budget manufacturers Sagem and Alcatel, than to the capabilities of multimedia handsets from bigger players. Incumbent brands Sony Ericsson, Samsung and LG are presently readying 12 megapixel monster cameraphones for market, running all kinds of fancy picture editing tools.

The battery life of the new iPhone 3G S represents another very marginal improvement compared with its predecessor – same talk/data time on 3G, two hours better 2G time and three hours better Wi-Fi time.

The memory capacity is another sticking point. The 32GB version of the iPhone 3G S is to be made available at a £90 premium to the 16GB version. (The 16GB version is itself only equivalent in storage terms to the outgoing high-capacity iPhone 3G.)

That has got to stick in the craw, when Apple iPod capacity comes in much bigger increments at much lesser price differentials (80GB iPod Classic for £125, 120GB iPod Classic for £160, for instance). At the same time, a Kingston SDHC 16GB Flash Memory Card – compatible with any mobile phone except those bearing the Apple stamp – is available for a little under £20, and a 16GB Micro SD card is available for around £40. Of course, these are compatible with all handsets except iPhones.

Clearly, too, Apple has the technology to incorporate much greater storage capacity on iPhone devices than it is doing, which is a demonstration of it stringing out production to keep punters upgrading each year. Every manufacturer does it, but the hyperbole and profiteering is difficult to take in this instance.

And this new compass feature? The G1 included a compass, as does the new Samsung i8910i. So, again, it is difficult to stomach such fanfare for a minor me-too application like this.

Plainly, none of this will matter to sales. Apple fans suffer from a kind of brainwashing, whereby they line the streets every 12 months to shell out for lightly-modified new kit.

The iPhone 3G S will sell extremely well, for Apple and for its distribution partners. And the iPhone user interface is still the best example in mobile of a truly intuitive and consumer-friendly navigation system; one which has raised the bar for the rest of the market and demonstrated usability is more essential than functions.

Also, Apple should be commended because it could easily have held back the software patch, and forced existing iPhone users to upgrade their hardware at huge cost. It hasn’t done that. And however minor the hardware modifications to the iPhone, the new software really is good – and for method and detail runs circles around the likes of Nokia, whose Ovi launch last months was an exercise in dinosaur manufacturing.

Ultimately, the problem with the iPhone 3G S is to do with the mindless fandom the Apple brand engenders, and the pandering to it Apple does with presentation and O2 does with pricing. Huge numbers of iPhone users will upgrade. In hardware terms, it is a rip-off.

 

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