Apple's iPhone 5 hits right buttons but lacks surprises

It may have been the worst kept secret in technology history. So much so that when the iPhone 5 finally made its debut on Wednesday in San Francisco, many observers were disappointed because there were no surprises.

New, lighter model packs some features already existing on competitor smartphones

The iPhone 5 is on display after its introduction during Apple Inc.'s iPhone media event in San Francisco Wednesday. It was designed to be thinner than the current 4S model, with a taller screen, but several other new features on the iPhone are already on other smartphones.

It may have been the worst kept secret in technology history. So much so that when the iPhone 5 finally made its debut on Wednesday in San Francisco, many observers were disappointed because there were no surprises.

The much-ballyhooed device — on sale in Canada through Bell, Rogers, Telus and their sub-brands on Sept. 21 — is packed with everything that was expected: a four-inch screen that's half an inch bigger than its predecessors and slightly sharper, an A6 processor that's twice as fast as the iPhone 4S, and long-term evolution (LTE) cellular connectivity that will make for much zippier downloads.

It's also got a slightly better camera that can now take panoramic photos, and it's thinner and lighter too — about 20 per cent less weighty than the 4S.

On the software side, the iPhone 5 will have better email organization, FaceTime video calling over cellular connections, easy photo stream sharing, a new Maps app and a nifty folder called Passbook, where all sorts of electronic tickets, boarding passes and coupons can be stored.

The new connectors for the iPhone 5 is displayed during Apple Inc.'s iPhone media event in San Francisco. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

All told, virtually every specification and feature had been leaked, pieced together by tech detectives or shared by Apple prior to the event. So why the disappointment?

Victim of its own success

Apple has, in many ways, become a victim of its own success. Over the past five years since the launch of the original iPhone, it has grown into the biggest company in the world by market capitalization. Its product launches are thus the most heavily scrutinized — and hyped — events in the technology world.

With each successive event, onlookers grow increasingly curious as to whether the company will again hit a home run, or whether there will be signs that its golden touch might finally be running out, like it eventually has to. Against that backdrop, it's difficult to surprise people.

In some ways, the iPhone 5 is playing catch-up. Some of its capabilities are already found in other phones that have been on the market for months. Several Android devices, for example, do panoramic photos and run on LTE networks.

Other devices are using near-field communication, a wireless technology that lets phones share photos or make mobile payments simply by touching them to a sensor. Apple obviously decided to forego NFC with this version, but that’s evidence that the infrastructure for mobile payments is not yet sufficiently developed, according to Forrester Research analysts Frank Gillett.

When mobile payments start to gain traction, as they could over the next year, Apple will then add the capability, he added. It's a wait-and-see approach.

So, will consumers rush to snap up the iPhone 5, despite the lack of surprises? Many analysts believe so. One report earlier this week suggested the new gadget could singlehandedly boost the U.S. economy.

3.6 million iPhones in Canada

According to Toronto-based tracking firm Solutions Research Group, there are approximately 3.6 million iPhones in circulation in Canada, accounting for about a third of all smartphones. Over the next 12 months, the company expects about 1.5 million new iPhone users to come into the fold, the vast majority of whom will be buying the latest device.

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Based on surveys gauging buying intent, this coming Christmas period is going to be the biggest season for smartphones in some time.

"[Apple] are very well positioned to break records come February when they announce what happened during the Christmas season," says Solutions Research Group president Kaan Yigit. "My vote is it will do very well."

So what exactly is it about the iPhone 5 that will have people lining up? After spending some time with the new device at a hands-on session after the press conference, it's clear that its weight — or, more specifically, lack thereof — will be a big selling point. The new phone is touted as being 20 per cent lighter than the 4S, but when holding the two at the same time, it's easy to think it's even lighter than that.

The main material is now anodized aluminum, with a lot less glass involved, which takes away a lot of the heft. The A6 processor is also smaller than its predecessor, so that's also saving weight.

Other than that, the iPhone 5 represents a series of incremental improvements. There's nothing earth-shattering, which is disappointing to those who want to be surprised, but it’s evidently going to be enough for the millions of consumers looking for a new phone.