The difference between the iPhone 4 and the 4S? A free iOS app.

Apple announcements are probably like Election Day for technology journalists in the United States. They’re much hyped, well-anticipated and preceded by lots of controversies and rumors.

For Filipino gadget geeks, every time Apple comes out with something it’s like Christmas morning. Apple usually makes announcements in the morning, Eastern time, which means 1am Philippine time, when everyone is too asleep to be bothered with a gadget announcement. The moment we wake up, though, we rush to our laptops and check all the liveblogs we bookmarked in advance, excited to see what Steve Claus left for us under the tree.

Steve retired earlier this year and sadly passed away on Wednesday. Apple was apparently informed of its co-founder’s imminent demise, as its headquarters “went dark”over the weekend preceding Jobs’s death, Robert Scoble quotes “a guy I know at Facebook” as saying. Tim Cook, who succeeded Jobs as CEO, and his team had iOS apps and a “new developer platform” to announce, but we got none of that on Tuesday.

But Jobs wouldn’t have wanted anything to come to a halt because of him, so Tim Cook went up the stage and announced the iPhone 4S on Tuesday. Steve Jobs deserves a separate post; here I’ll talk about the 4S.

The 4S retains the form factor of the previous generation, except that GSM users might wonder why there’s an extra notch on the upper left side of the phone, above the Mute key. Apple changed the antenna structure so that the phone can support both GSM and CDMA networks, removing the need for separate models for different networks. The 4S packs a new dual-core processor and an eight-megapixel camera, up three million pixels from the iPhone 4. This confirms the theory that Apple makes major upgrades to its iPhone every other year, and releases relatively minor upgrades in in between.

However, Apple always manages to include something stellar in the minor upgrades to entice customers to buy what would be an otherwise unchanged phone. Remember when they came out with the 3GS? It sported the same form factor as the 3G that preceded it, except with a few speed improvements, multitasking and Voice Control. The speed improvements weren’t so noticeable; multitasking on the 3GS made the phone lag. But Voice Control was a dream. You spoke stuff like “play Here Comes The Sun” or “What time is it?”into the phone, and instantly the song would play or the time would be told to you. All told, it wasn’t enough reason to replace a one-year-old phone, but for many Apple users who were on the fence about an upgrade, it was probably all the convincing they needed.

Similarly, the A5 chip isn’t really a big leap from the A4 chip on the iPhone 4 (in fact, I don’t imagine I’ll ever need anything faster than the iPhone 4 for my daily needs). I barely flinched at the 8MP camera—I can take photos just fine with my iPhone 4 and all of the five megapixels it has to offer.

But Apple took the voice control technology one step further with Siri, which they demonstrated the hell out of during the iPhone 4S announcement. Siri is like a tiny personal assistant fairy that lives inside your phone. Tell it to “set a meeting for 4pm on Tuesday at the Conference Room” and an appointment is automatically added to your Calendar. Saying, “I’m craving for a burger in Quezon City” will give you a list of hamburger places in your city, ranked according to Yelp ratings. Tell it to “text Kathleen I’m on my way,” and it instantly sends an SMS.

People are buzzing about Siri all over the Internet, but those who don’t really follow technology won’t know that Siri was actually a free (FREE!) iOS app DARPA helped develop. It went live on the Apple App Store on February 5, 2010, and Apple bought the company on April 29 that year. Siri hasn’t received an update since the purchase, but it stayed on the Store, available for download.

And then, the iPhone 4S keynote happened. Before it started, Siri was still free for downloading by anyone; by the time it was over, Siri had been taken down. Those who downloaded the app before it was pulled offline will still be able to use it until October 15. From then on, everyone who doesn’t have an iPhone 4S won’t be able to use the technology.

Basically, Apple bought a company (for an undisclosed, but my guess is pretty hefty amount) to make its users get a brand new, $199 phone to enjoy a feature that previously cost nothing.

Is Siri enough reason to fork over as much as $399 for the 64GB iPhone 4S and throw away your perfectly fine iPhone 4? Granted, Siri is much more integrated into iOS now that it’s a feature instead of a third-party app. Many pedestrian users have probably been won over again and again by the use cases Apple demonstrated in the keynote. But I don’t think anyone who isn’t a power-user businessman-type can justify a 4S purchase if he already has an iPhone 4. The Voice Control feature that’s available now for iPhone 4 and 3GS users works perfectly well for most basic commands, such as playing songs, dialing numbers and asking for the time. If I want to book a reservation in a restaurant, I can just ask Voice Control to call the place, and I can speak to a human to reserve a table. I don’t need to buy myself a new phone.

Then again, Apple probably knows there are quite a few people out there who have both a lot of money and an infinite love for everything Infinite Loop. Those people will probably populate the lines outside Apple Stores once the iPhone 4S goes on shelves. The rest of us know the real story: the iPhone 4S is just an iPhone 4 with one fewer available app.


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