With iPhone 4S, it’s the little things that count

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So there was no iPhone 5. But there will be a new iPhone 4S, which Apple announced Tuesday. And yes, it physically looks just like the iPhone 4, which might be disappointing for some, but there are several useful new features, most of them not visible at first glance. While there was no big reveal, no “one more thing,” it’s important to remember these incremental upgrades could add up to a lot.

I say “could,” because we didn’t get to play with the iPhone 4S. But what CEO Tim Cook and others showed the press during the 95-minute presentation this morning is very symbolic of what Apple is trying to do to keep standing out: pay excruciatingly close attention to the little things that help make a product great.

The iPhone 4 is a great phone — and people continue to buy it in droves more than a year later — so it’s not like Apple had to go back to the drawing board or do a major overhaul. So what they did do to the new iPhone 4S was largely internal and incremental: a faster processor (the A5 chip, which is Apple-designed and already in use in the iPad 2), an improved camera (up to 8 megapixels from 5, wider aperture, better sensor for low-light photos, 1080p video recording, video image stabilization), updated software (the previously announced iOS 5, iCloud, iTunes Match), the ability to run on both GSM and CDMA networks, a new U.S. carrier (Sprint), redesigned antenna technology, aggressive pricing on older model iPhones (3GS now free on contract, iPhone 4 now $99) and Siri, the personal assistant app. All of it is relatively minor, but at the same time, all of it adds up to features designed to make the smartphone faster and its battery last longer with quicker downloads, uploads and streaming. And overall, the improvements are designed to make the iPhone 4S easier to use, which is what most people want from a smartphone anyway.

Siri got a lot of “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowd Tuesday. It may not be useful to everyone — it seems largely designed for situations where you can’t look at or pick up your iPhone, like driving. You can ask questions like (in a phrase humans would use) “What time is it in Philadelphia right now?” or “What will the weather be like when I get there?”; respond and send text messages; make calendar appointments; search for restaurants (with Yelp integration); look something up online; set reminders; and more. In other words, it’s designed to help you get stuff done.

Siri is a great example of Apple doing something that other hardware makers it competes with are not. Siri isn’t something you need any technical know how to use or understand and it’s seamlessly integrated with the entire device. (Microsoft and Android have voice assistance technology, but don’t go this far in integration.) It’s not even a new technology, but Apple sunk resources into the Siri acquisition to make it an integral function of this and probably future iPhones. Like iTunes Match and AirPlay, they’re not sexy, they’re relatively small but useful features that are supposed to quietly just work.

Apple doesn’t jump on every new technology that comes along (Blu-ray, 4G, NFC, etc.). That’s not how it competes, so it’s not going to make a huge splash with every single new announcement every year. If you think about what Cook emphasized during his introduction Tuesday, you’ll see the things that Apple knows set it apart from other device makers that can slap together hardware that looks really good: Apple’s retail stores, customer satisfaction ratings, the overall iOS ecosystem and the tight integration of devices and software. It’s not super juicy stuff talking about how many new stores you’ve opened or how you redesigned the phone’s antenna instead of new design or the extreme thinness and lightness of a phone. But those small, sometimes unnoticed advances are the ones that matter when it comes to acquiring — and keeping — customers.

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