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Delight and disappointment greet Apple's new iPhone

THE long-awaited iPhone 5 doesn't seem to be wowing Apple fans and industry professionals like the iPhone 4 did.

In online forums and media headlines, the latest device has been described as "a taller iPhone 4" with "less-than-expected innovation."

As an iPhone user and tech industry observer, I can't quite agree that the iPhone 5 and the new mobile system iOS 6 lack innovation, but I have to admit I expected more, such as an improved camera, wireless connection among devices and biology-related technology.

Those state-of-the-art technologies, which partly appear in rival products made by Google, Nokia, Sony and Samsung, are currently the future of mobile devices and, one might say, the wireless lifestyle. Apple, which defined digital music and has transformed the mobile phone industry, should do more to lead the trend.

After all, Apple updates its iPhone once a year. It's hard to say whether this latest version is innovative enough to remain competitive for the next 12 months in a hotly contested market.

Even with these concerns, iPhone 5 is no doubt one of the best smartphones in the world and probably will be the best-selling smartphone, just like iPhone 4.

Last week, Apple unveiled its latest generation iPhone in the United States. It features a bigger display, more powerful chip and support for a faster 4G wireless network. The new mobile operating system iOS 6 will also be available for downloading starting today.

The 4-inch screen, powerful A6 chip and support of LTE (long-term evolution) make the iPhone 5 competitive, compared with flagship models from rivals, like Samsung's Galaxy 3 and Note 2, and Nokia's Lumia 920.

In the past two months, Samsung, Apple, Nokia and Motorola Mobility have all unveiled new handsets and tablets, triggering a new round in the smartphone battleground. The iPhone 5, with its lighter weight, slimmer design, faster Internet, more powerful chip and a new smaller and efficient Lightning connector is well-equipped for the fight.

Apple sold out the quota for the first batch of iPhone 5s within an hour in an online pre-order in Los Angeles. In Tokyo, crowds of people stood in lines in front of Apple stores to pre-order the iPhone 5, which will be on the shelves from Friday.

Apple is expected to sell 10 million iPhone 5s by the end of September, or 10 days after its debut, analysts said.

By comparison, Samsung took several months to sell 10 million of its Galaxy 3, its best-selling model this year.

"We believe the hardware improvements are significant and will drive a strong product cycle," Morgan Stanley analysts said in a recent note. They expect Apple to sell between 211 million and 266 million iPhones in 2013.

Besides hardware improvements, Apple is also updating the software and system for the iPhone, a move the company describes as "incredible cross collaborative."

I can't deny those are real innovations, including the new iOS 6 with its better integration between software and hardware, iTunes for a broader ecosystem, new Maps to replace previous Google Maps and iCloud synchronization.

More notably, Apple has added China-oriented functions in the new iOS 6, which is installed in iPhone 5 and able to downloaded by iPhone, iPad and iPod users. They include Baidu's search service, Sina's Weibo service and Youku Tudou's video services.

All these features would be impressive if Apple were another company. But they aren't so impressive for Apple, the company that invented the iPod, iPhone and iPad with a mission to "change the world." Frankly speaking, we expected something more from the iPhone 5 than just being a top smartphone.

The new iPhone suggests that Apple's pace of innovation is slowing, which must be a welcome sign to rivals such as Samsung and Nokia, as well as Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Shanda.

"Apple used to be a unique piece of artwork, but now it has faded into something like all the rest," said Xiang Ligang, head of professional telecommunications website CCTimes.com.

From my own standpoint, I had expected to see Apple provide more in one or two of the following segments:

Better camera

According to open tech specs and online reviews written by those who have tried iPhone 5, its camera has been slightly improved over previous models. The upgrade wasn't astounding.

It's still an 8-megapixel sensor, a pretty standard LED (light emitting diode) flash and aperture up to f/2.4, also like iPhone 4S.

Still, photography on the iPhone still leads all other models, thanks to thousands of third-party applications like Camera+ and Instagram - a picture-sharing application recently acquired by Facebook for US$1 billion - and Apple's own-developed iPhoto.

But other firms like Nokia and Samsung are catching up with more powerful cameras on the hardware level, such as Nokia's Lumia 920, with its nice performance in low light environments and improved stabilization and zoom methods, and Samsung's 12-mega-pixel camera.

Wireless connection

The wireless connection doesn't mean Wi-Fi or Bluetooth used in the iPhone now. It refers to a new technology called NFC (near field communications), which allows users to share data among various devices, finish wireless payments and even charge phones without lines.

Many iPhone users complain how difficult it is to transfer a picture from the iPhone to another handset, even if it's another iPhone.

Apple's recommended way is to send an email with the pictures. Despite the complicated processes, like opening an email account, attaching pictures and sending and receiving the emails, Chinese consumers have to face another challenge: slow networks. Unlike Western countries, China's 3G penetration rate is still very low and Wi-Fi coverage is limited only to major cities.

On the other hand, Sony and Samsung have developed built-in applications that allow users to transfer pictures, music, contacts and other data through a simple step, like shaking handsets at the same time, based on the NFC function.

Nokia went further on its newly launched Lumia 920, which allows users to charge the phone wirelessly.

Biological technologies

Google Glass, wearable devices and, of course, Apple's Siri have represented the convergence between biological and information technology, a trend that will change the whole industry.

On the iPhone 5, Apple has enhanced the voice-recognition Siri feature. The speech-command service has added features that allow users to search for sports scores and make dinner reservations by speaking into the smartphone.

But it seems to fall short, especially since Google has already launched similar services on the latest Android system.

Based on Google's database and map services, Apple will find it difficult to maintain a competitive advantage in this segment, as it did on the iPhone 4.

Other cool gadgets have also appeared recently and they seem more interesting than Siri. Among them, I am thinking of Google Glass, Sony's glass able to play 3D movies and games through connection with smartphones or TVs, and Samsung's Galaxy 3, with eyeball recognition to adjust lights on the screen.


 

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