iPhone 4S reality check: people get sore when Apple doesn’t deliver a magical surprise

Cast your mind back a few Apple keynotes ago to Macworld January 2008. Steve Jobs is on stage and in an overtly theatrical gesture introduces the first-gen MacBook Air to the audience by neatly sliding it from a manila envelope. It’s a clever trick: man that notebook must be thin! The crowd coos in stunned appreciation. And it becomes another part of the Apple legend.

This elevated stagecraft and longed-for sense of wonder is what people have come to crave from Apple products and product launches: the hidden reveal the showmanship and the surprise.

It is a lofty level of expectation that Apple has itself conspicuously encouraged in us over the years with artful stage management insane levels of pre-release secrecy coded invitations and hyperbolic messaging repeated on stage and in advertising like a mantra.

Part of this is attributable to what has been called Steve Jobs’ “reality distortion field” and truly it seems to have warped our perspective: not only on what Apple does deliver but also with what we deem Apple should be delivering. What we really want. Which is the continual surprise and newness and wonder.  

So it tends to backfire when Apple doesn’t deliver these delights of the unexpected. Take today’s iPhone 4S launch. The new model is clearly the most sophisticated and powerful smartphone Apple has yet devised (and I’m not an iPhone user let me just add).

It packs in a faster processor a better camera and a substantial OS update. It’s complemented by Apple’s new cloud platform and an unprecedented iTunes music offer. Plus there’s a decidedly impressive-looking voice-controlled assistant feature that offers an innovative and personalised way of interacting with your phone.

In short the 4S is literally the smartest iPhone we’ve yet seen. But a quick poll of the internet and Twitter shows it’s gone down like a damp squib. A failure. A disappointment. Almost as if an intangible promise made to us has been broken somewhere along the line. Best to hang on until next year when the real iPhone 5 comes out right?

According to one analyst “Everyone was underwhelmed by Apple today. Only the most loyal are standing by this one”. Another says: “The Steve Jobs era is over that’s for sure.” Apple shares even plunged five per cent before rallying.

In relation to the perception issue tech commentator John Gbuber made the following observation a few days ago: “I detect an undercurrent of sentiment that if Apple announces the iPhone 4S it’d be a letdown but if they announce the iPhone 5 it’d be exciting. But this is all merely about how the thing looks on the outside. A new form factor would by definition bring more ‘new-ness’ to the announcement but why should an iPhone 4-lookalike ‘iPhone 4S’ be considered disappointing if it contains significantly improved components?”

Why indeed? If Apple today released a phone which had an 8MP camera a faster processor Siri (and all the rest) and housed it in a shiny new casing (and called it “5”) would all the naysayers have been justly pleased? Clearly the same progressive specs in last year’s body and with a backward-sounding “4S” moniker don’t cut the mustard even though the difference is purely pizazz purely cosmetic.

It seems if Apple doesn’t overwhelm our senses it’s doomed to underwhelm them. There’s no room for a middle of the road with a perceived and portrayed “magical” product like the iPhone or iPad.

So once the show was over many of us sat blinking and a little confused. Is that it? Almost like a bunch of disappointed kids who thought they’d scored ringside tickets to a real magic show.

Only later we realised we’d been had. This year there was no magic show. It was just the announcement of another mass market consumer smartphone after all.