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Limits of the Apple Hype Machine

Well, the iPhone 5 was announced yesterday, and there wasn't a whole lot either new or unanticipated. Unlike most Apple announcements that are showed amid CIA-level security, the rumor mill had been fueled by any number of leaks and prototype pictures and there had been no end to the speculation surrounding the pending announcement. In the end the consensus is that the iPhone 5 is a little thinner, the screen's a little bigger, the camera's a little better, Siri's a little smarter, but the key theme is that every one of the advances is preceded by "a little".

My hat's off to Jeff Bertolucci from Information Week who actually did a piece on the 10 best features of the iPhone 5--how did he find 10! Jeff did nail the key advances Apple incorporated in this iteration, but none of them had the type of "Wow factor" we've seen in earlier releases. The first introduction of the Retina display was eye-popping. When Siri showed up it the iPhone 4S, it was the major "Wow factor"--we can't see anything of that magnitude in this one. And Samsung did a pretty good job coming up with its own S Voice intelligent voice recognition for Android within a year.

Where Apple had traditionally trailed on the wireless interface, probably the biggest single advance in the iPhone 5 is LTE and full 802.11n support. CEO Tim Cook's presentation pointed to LTE data rates up to 100 Mbps, but we are definitely not seeing that today. Apple retains the right to control the mobile operators' advertising claims regarding the iPhone, but clearly the reverse is not true. PC Magazine does the most comprehensive studies of 3G and 4G network performance; the fastest 4G service they tested was Verizon's and they found a maximum downstream rate around half of that 100-Mpbs figure. However, if you examine the table on performance from the latest PC Magazine article, you'll see that LTE still represents a major step forward in terms of wireless performance.

However, the iPhone 5 also boosts 802.11n performance. Where most smartphone implementations for 802.11n are limited to 20 MHz channels in the 2.4 GHz band, the iPhone 5 will support both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz implementations and dual channel capability, boosting the Wi-Fi capacity to 150 Mbps. Of course that means the 802.11n implementation on the iPhone 5 is still a single transmit chain, which is regularly used with small form factor devices to save battery--single channel, single chain 802.11n implementations top out at 72 Mbps. Laptops are moving to three-stream implementations with a maximum data rate of 450 Mbps.

The best news is that owners of the iPhone 4S, 4, and 3S will be able to upgrade to the new iOS 6 that will be released with the iPhone 5. That's a big difference from what we see with most Android and Windows Phone releases, and may have a lot to do with the higher overall user satisfaction with the Apple ecosystem.

I'm looking forward to the improved Siri, and to the new Maps and Passport apps it will deliver.

The big question I have is, what happened to the 7-inch iPad? There had been so much talk and even purported pictures of prototype units, but come announcement day, it disappeared in a puff of smoke. Maybe Apple is holding this card for a later announcement.

So the iPhone juggernaut rolls along, and like its predecessors, the iPhone 5 will sell in the millions of units. But I'm not sure it will drive even the Apple faithful to camp out in front of the Apple store to snag the first ones off the line.