Opinion: iPhone 5 anticipation may exceed iPhone 5 reality

Snoopy once sagely observed that "the anticipation far exceeded the actual event."

From all indications, the beagle's cynical view is likely to describe the reaction of the digital cognoscenti when the iPhone 5 appears about a month from now. Indications are, iPhone 5 will actually be more an iPhone 4S, a minor upgrade in screen size, antenna and design, with few significant improvements.

And probably no 4G.

Which means the next iteration of the iPhone, once the technological master of the smart phone universe, is likely to be nowhere near the top of the today's most innovative phones. Yet we'll be treated to the usual Apple hoopla and subsequent huge sales, perhaps huger than any iPhone before it.

How huger? An RBC/Changewave survey has found 31 percent of respondents either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to buy an iPhone 5, five percent more than a similar survey preceding the introduction of the then highly-anticipated iPhone 4 more than a year ago.

It seems Apple has discovered an interesting phenomena: iPhone not only doesn't have to be cutting edge, it's better if it isn't.

Like a certain economic theory, technology trickles down. Early adopters drive technological advancement and preliminary product excitement. But devices only sell in the millions of units when they become commoditized, as common as wrist watches, allowing the casual consumer to almost impulsively indulge at low cost. Hence the extreme popularity of small, awful and cheap LCD HDTVs.

While the iPhone 5 won't be the technological equivalent of a Swatch or a $299 32-inch LCD TV, it won't exactly be a Patek Philippe or a Runco projector, either.

Here's what I've gleaned from the iPhone 5 rumor mill, and how some of these anticipated attributes compare to the latest bleedingest-edge smartphone, the new Samsung Galaxy II, available from Sprint on Sept. 16 and from AT&T and T-Mobile soon thereafter:

  • a 3.7-inch screen — three-quarters of an inch (plus) less real estate than Galaxy II's 4.52-inch Super AMOLED screen, and around a half-inch less than the 4- or 4.3-inch screens commonly found on Android models;
  • 512 MB RAM, same as the iPhone 4 and half of the 1 GB found on many Android phones, including the new Galaxy II;
  • 16 and 32 GB of memory, not a 64 GB choice, compared to Samsung Galaxy II's built-in 16 GB plus a 32 GB micro SD card slot;
  • either iPhone 4's 1 GHz processor or the 1.2 GHz chip from the iPad 2, compared to Galaxy II's 1.5 GHz engine.

This combination of specifications would barely have been cutting edge a year ago, much less in October 2011.

The Need For Speed

But iPhone 5's biggest state-of-the-art deficiency may be network speed.

Samsung Galaxy II will run on Sprint's 4G WiMAX network, and on T-Mobile's HSPA+ 4G network.

However, there is no word on whether iPhone 5 will be similarly speed provisioned.

Boy Genius Report reports Apple has been test-driving the iPhone with LTE.

However, I have seen no reports about possible WiMAX or HSPA+ iPhone testing (although I'm sure if there has been such testing someone out there will report it).

Each of iPhone's once and future carriers employ a different and incompatible type of 4G technology: Verizon uses LTE, Sprint uses WiMAX and AT&T uses HSPA+ (although it is soon due to introduce its own LTE network).

How likely is Apple to manufacturer three different iPhones for three different carriers with three different radios? And that's assuming Sprint is getting the iPhone 5. One website is reporting Sprint actually is only getting the iPhone 4.

Even if I'm wrong about the multiple radio situation, Apple is rabid about iPhone battery life, and 4G technologies are well-known juice suckers. Cupertinites are unlikely to join the 4G club until they can deliver far better battery life than current Android 4G models.

(Although, iPhone 5 could be the less power-hungry HPSA+ 4G for AT&T, 3G for Verizon and Sprint.)

Given these considerations, I predict the iPhone 5 will be a 3G phone.

Not As Good For More Money? I'll Take It!

Let's recap. iPhone 5 is likely to have a smaller screen, less memory for operations and user storage, less processing power and slower network connections than the current Android state-of-the-art?

And it'll likely be more expensive?

Yet more people may buy the iPhone 5 than any other iPhone or than any better-spec'd/less expensive Android phone.

WTF?

To the 60 percent of U.S. mobile users still carrying a simple "feature" phone, 4G and faster processors and even a bigger screen won't matter. They'll buy the iPhone 5, especially from Sprint (if it gets the 5, not the 4), in the usual droves for the same reason they buy the iPad 2 instead of a more impressively provisioned Android tablet — the Apple ecosystem.

To the great masses of the American purchasing public, "cutting edge" means "too complicated." Thanks to iPod, the great technically unwashed understand Apple's ecosystem, which has become a snowball. The more popular Apple iPxxx products become, the more its ecosystem is developed and populated, making iPxxxs more popular.

And it seems to remain popular, iPhone not only doesn't have to be cutting-edge, it shouldn't be.

And, if the rumor mill is correct, it won't be.

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