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10/6/2011
11:09 AM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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iPhone Through The Years: Visual Tour

A look at where the iPhone has come from and where it's going.




Apple fans and the press expected to see Apple introduce a device called iPhone 5 at the company's media event on Tuesday, October 4, 2011. What they got instead was a device called iPhone 4S.

It was hoped that iPhone 5 would have a less boxy form factor, a larger screen, support for LTE networks, NFC (near field communication) hardware for contactless payments, and support industry-standard peripheral connections such as micro-USB.

But these features are wish-list items.More substantive improvements actually made it into the iPhone 4S and they're what matter to most potential iPhone buyers.

The form factor is a matter of taste. A larger screen has both advantages and disadvantages--more weight, less pocket-friendly. NFC payments won't be common for years. And anyone wishing for micro-USB doesn't understand Apple. Apple wants to promote wireless connectivity via iCloud rather than sullying its design with another hole in the chassis. Apple gets rid of industry standards when it can.

Only the lack of LTE support qualifies as a valuable missing feature, and even that has to be discounted because carriers like AT&T have only just begun their LTE rollouts. LTE support will mean more when it's available in more markets.

The iPhone 4S has what matters: a faster processor, faster network specs, a much improved camera, and better software--iOS 5 and the Siri personal assistant.

Apple watchers want a revolution with every product, but that's just not realistic.

Apple is in part to blame for this expectation, not being shy about shining a spotlight on its breakthroughs. In its public relations boilerplate, the company declares, "Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App Store, and has recently introduced iPad 2 which is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices."

Hype indeed, but not far from the truth either. Think about how far mobile phones have come since they first appeared in the 1970s. Think about what the mobile user experience was like before the iPhone was introduced in 2007. Then consider that the next revolutionary device, whether it comes from Apple or elsewhere, may not arrive at a time that fits hardware makers' product cycles.

In the meantime, we have the iPhone 4S. While it may not be world-changing, it's a nice phone nonetheless.


In the beginning, mobile communication got its mobility from being installed in vehicles. Then Dr. Martin Cooper of Motorola, seen here in a re-enactment, helped devise a radio telephone system that ushered in the mobile era.

Photo by Rico Shen

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Apple introduced the iPhone in the U.S. on June 29, 2007. Steve Jobs, CEO during this period, described it as a combination of three devices: an iPod, a phone, and an Internet device. At the time, there was nothing like it.

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Apple's iPhone 2 was called iPhone 3G, because it supported 3G carrier networks. The 3G also added Assisted GPS. But internally it was largely similar to the original iPhone. Both used the same display and processor, had the same amount of DRAM, and featured the same 2.0 megapixel camera.

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The iPhone 3GS featured significant improvements over the iPhone 3G. It had a faster processor, HSDPA connectity at 7.2 Mbit/s (twice as fast as the 3G), twice as much DRAM, a 3.2 megapixel camera, Flash memory up to 32 GB (up to 16 GB in the iPhone and iPhone 3G).

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The iPhone 4 was released in June, 2010, and was quickly embroiled in a debate about the extent to which holding the phone in a certain way could hinder call reception. Dubbed "antennagate," the issue became an example of poor crisis management. The solution offered by then CEO Steve Jobs--"Just avoid holding it that way"--only made matters worse and Jobs ended up addressing the matter head-on in a press conference the following month by acknowledging that Apple and its phones are not perfect. And neither are other phones, many of which exhibit similar reception issues.

Consumers barely noticed. They liked the sharper screen and other improvements. The iPhone 4 has been selling well since it was released.

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The iPhone 4S is to iPhone 4 as iPhone 3GS was to iPhone 3G. It's the kind of incremental product upgrade upon which tech industry revenue models are built. Its dual core A5 processor alone make the iPhone 4S worthwhile for anyone who plays mobile games.

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With the iPhone 4S comes iOS 5 and iCloud. Apple has a lot to prove here--its MobileMe service isn't exactly the most highly regarded cloud service out there. But if everything works as Apple suggests, one of the least appealing things about the iPhone--the need to tether it with a cable to sync files with one's local iTunes library--will be a thing of the past.

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The iPhone's most significant hardware component other than its cellular radio is its camera. It's significant because the camera, as part of your phone, is almost always with you. And that counts for a lot: Your Canon or Nikon SLR may take great pictures but not when they're not with you. So enjoy the improved 8 megapixel camera in your iPhone 4S.

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What's most intriguing about the iPhone 4S is not the phone itself but Siri, a software-based personal assistant based on technology Apple acquired last year. Siri represents a bold bid to leap ahead of Google in the realm of voice-based interaction. As demonstrated by Apple, Siri looks like a convenient way to interact with one's phone to perform a limited number of tasks, like setting the alarm clock, sending text messages, and rearranging one's calendar entries. What remains to be seen is whether it's really more efficient than touch-based interaction, whether people feel comfortable using it, and whether it's flexible enough to execute a broad range of tasks.

If it works, it might just be the revolution that people have come to expect from Apple. If not, well, Google will help people dig up old jokes about the Apple Newton and its handwriting recognition skills.

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Mobile Security's Future: 4 Expert Predictions

1 Million T-Mobile Customers Use Unlocked iPhones

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