Switched On: The four Ses of the iPhone 4S

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

The most surprising thing about the iPhone 4S is that people were surprised by the iPhone 4S, for there is ample precedent to the company both confining upgrades largely to a speed bump and to saying no to a host of potential new features. As to the former, the iPhone 4S is straight out of the playbook of Apple's successful upgrade of the Apple 3G to the 3GS, although the competition wasn't as strong as it is today.

Similarly, when Apple first lowered the price of the iPod touch below $200 in 2009 amidst widespread speculation that it would add a front-facing camera for FaceTime (which it did in the next generation), the company noted that it didn't think the product needed any more "stuff." So, what, then, defines the iPhone 4S? The differentiators can be thought of as four "Ses."

Speed. The most significant specification change to the iPhone 4S from its predecessor is the bump to Apple's A5 processor, which currently inhabits the slim encasing of the iPad 2. As such, we can get a sense of the speed and battery life benefits by comparing the original iPad to its sequel. While it has certainly resulted in a snappier experience and enabled developers to do new things by utilizing a superior graphics engine in their apps, it hasn't really made a fundamental difference yet. Perhaps the best reason to opt for the iPhone 4S's faster processor is that it should help run future versions of iOS better, as was the case for the 3GS.

Shooting. The iPhone 4S bumps the resolution of its digital stills from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels (available in competitive cameras even at the launch of the iPhone 4) and its HD video capture resolution from 720p to 1080p. Apple primarily talked up the photos during the introduction. The improvement -- particularly in conjunction with the speedy shot time and home screen camera launching feature of iOS 5 -- continues the new emphasis on imaging that Switched On discussed when the iPhone 4 launched. Indeed, there are now a host of add-on lenses created for the iPhone 4 that should work well with the iPhone 4S's identical body.

Siri. The showstopper of the iPhone 4S launch, it wasn't any news that Apple had acquired Siri, but the software has obviously come a long way since Apple purchased it and is integrated into core functions of the handset as well as Wolfram Alpha for getting answers directly from the internet. While there was no announcement of the long-rumored new mapping application from Apple this week, Siri nonetheless represents Apple further asserting its online independence from Google in circumventing its lists of links.

Sprint. In several ways, the introduction of the iPhone 4S was about expanding the iOS base. While there was no prepaid iPhone announcement, Apple did introduce the iPhone on Sprint, one of the two biggest players in prepaid. At a Sprint event on Friday, the #3 carrier noted that the lack of an iPhone was the #1 reason customers gave for leaving the carrier, so having the iPhone and iPhone 4S available to these customers for the first time should bolster Apple's market share. In addition, the free 3GS available at AT&T and the untouched iPod touch dropping back below $200 should also help drive the iOS developer base.

Five years after the debut of the original iPhone, the iPhone 4S raises questions as to whether the product has reached "middle age." After all, the basic industrial design of the MacBook Pro has not changed dramatically since the titanium PowerBook G4 of 2001, the Mac Pro's look goes back to the PowerMac G5 enclosure of 2003, and the aluminum iMac's since 2007. Apple has never been a company to seek out the most impressive specification available to address competitors. Rather, with iOS 5 and iCloud, it will bring the integration of two other "Ses" -- software and services -- to a set of devices that extends far beyond a phone that held few surprises.

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.