On October 4th, after months of speculation, Apple finally introduces the iPhone 5. The kommentariat are ecstatic and approvingly list the new smartphone’s strongest points: Twice the processor speed; seven times the graphics oomph; a new camera with an Apple-designed lens, 8 megapixels and improved image processing; the power of the new iOS 5; iCloud integration and synchronization with all your iDevices; a new smart antenna; Siri, the innovative intelligent assistant. And, courageously resisting the temptation of capricious cosmetic changes, the iPhone 5 stays with Jony Ive’s elegant, timeless design that was unveiled only last year.

The preternaturally modest Apple execs cringe at the gushing praise, but what can they do? It’s their cross to bear.

That’s what we expected. Now let’s consider the reality: Same phone, same features, same design, but it’s now called 4S instead of 5. This changes everything. The pundits are indignant: The iPhone 4S is a lame, evolutionary product; management’s presentation (video here) is flat, uninspiring. This dog won’t sell. Apple has lost its mojo.
(Regarding the “flat” presentation, Apple execs knew Steve Jobs was just a few breaths away from his last, but they got on stage and delivered anyway. When news of Steve’s demise came out the following day, many critics, such as blogger Robert Scobble, had the good grace to apologize to Cook & Co. for railing about their subdued performance.)

Despite these lamentations, strong pre-order numbers start circulating (more than 1 million on day one), followed by the first batch of reviews. Apple 2.0’s Philip Elmer-DeWitte obligingly provides a neat compendium of these first impressions, which range from “fair and balanced” to unabashedly enthusiastic.
The doubters begin to change their tune. In a Business Insider post on the very day of the announcement, Henry Blodget had dismissively concluded:

“So, bottom line, it seems reasonable to think that announcing the “iPhone 4S” instead of the “iPhone 5″ will hurt Apple’s sales over the next year, especially with Android phones improving all the time.”

And, to buttress his point, he quoted the following “statistic”:

“… in our initial survey, 45% of iPhone 4 owners say they will NOT upgrade.”

Lovely. The militantly anal seekers of meaningful data will inquire about the survey methodology, sample composition, size… And one wonders if the “survey” summary could just as meaningfully be written as:

“… 55% of iPhone 4 owners say they WILL DEFINITELY upgrade.”

Twenty-four hours later, Dear Henry could no longer contain his true feelings:

“After the change in the calendar rollout schedule from June to October and all the iPhone 5 hype, I was expecting the company to announce something bigger. And a phone that looks and feels just the same as the (admittedly awesome) iPhone 4 wasn’t what I was expecting.
But that said…
I cannot WAIT to buy a 4S!”

Some thoughts come to mind.

For the past few months, regions of the blogosphere had become a gigantic echo chamber for iPhone 5 rumors ranging from the bizarre (a new ‘‘teardrop” design) to saner extrapolations such as the use of the iPad’s A5 processor or a better camera. This is how Internet streetwalkers roll. Sites need strong pageview numbers so they can attract advertising revenue. And once this noise starts, the volume increases as the herd competes for traffic.

Should we ask if Apple could have done a better job pre-positioning its product? The vestal Apple jealously guards its product secrets, triggering an escalade of fantasies among inquisitive barbarians — what the French call l’hommage du vice à la vertu, vice paying tribute to virtue: Keeping everything under wraps might protect revenue, preserve flexibility, and increase mystique but the price Apple pays for totally clamming up is that they lose control of the public discourse about unannounced products. Alternating between lauding and trashing fantasy Apple products is fun and sometimes profitable, but it can create unreasonable expectations and, as we just saw, it exposes the company to the perception of a letdown.

It’s tempting to think that the unrealistic expectations could be avoided if Apple would simply tell one or two trusted friends, discreetly, to euthanize the particularly noxious rumors. Some companies buy such friends: a frequently quoted “observer” gets a discreet consulting agreement and dutifully parrots the party line in media interviews. I know: years ago, when I joined the Board of a tech company, I saw one such arrangement at work with a professional ‘‘quote machine”. And I was reminded of the episode when, watching last week’s 4S intro video, I recognized the individual in the audience. He still ‘‘comments’’, but definitely not on Apple’s behalf.
This type of complicity is a slippery slope: You know when you start but you might not be able to stop and it always ends up creating a smell as, over time, the media figure things out. In addition, such practice carries with it serious potential for insider trading.

Paying customers, on the other hand, march to a different drummer. We saw it last year with the Antennagate scandal: Lots of noise and dire predictions, but no visible effect on the product. The iPhone 4 logged record sales quarter after quarter, reaching 20.3 million units for the last reported period. Likewise, the 4S “snafu” isn’t likely to have an effect on Apple’s numbers.

As for the iPhone 5, errr 4S, I don’t have a second impression yet. I’m particularly curious to see how my gut will react to Siri — and how it/she will react to my French accent. I should know in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Apple 2.0, again. offers a selection of Web sites dedicated to Siri’s humorous utterances. I can’t help but admire how Apple uses clever humor to ‘‘humanize’’ Siri and, in so doing, defuses negative feelings arising from the inevitable imperfections of an ‘‘intelligent’’ computer system.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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