Oct. 5, 2011 at 11:26 AM ET
It was easy to call the iPhone 4S news disappointing — after all, Apple fans and phone shoppers alike had been eager to see what comes after the iPhone 4, and instead saw what looked on the surface like more of the same. But Apple's presentation was primarily a showcase of software, not hardware. And it's the software that will keep Apple ahead of the competition.
Apple has some downright disruptive code built into iOS 5 — what carrier in their right mind doesn't fear the power of iMessage, a system of text and media messaging that could replace your SMS plan, and works on iPads and iPods, too?
And there's more that makes the iPhone experience better, even for people who are sticking with last year's model. There are more than 200 new features, including location-aware Reminders, AirPlay wireless streaming, in-phone photo editing, the tabbed Safari browser and the super-clean article Reader.
iCloud — which includes like a million new ways for people to sync data, files and apps between the iPhone, other iOS devices, the Mac and Apple's own servers — is still a completely unexplored country. Though Steve Jobs revealed the Photo Stream gallery, the iTunes song-matching service, the free email and more last June, it launches next week, with iOS 5 and the new phones. On paper it's not quite a Flickr killer, or a Spotify killer, or a Gmail killer, but only when iPhone users sign up in hordes will we get a sense of its usefulness and potential.
And the 4S is recipient of the most fascinating new software release of all: Siri, the artificially intelligent assistant. It interprets your requests however casual your wording, and can do things like set alarm clocks and alerts, send notes, make calendar entries and other actions that have generally required fat-fingered input.
It's important to note that Siri is not the first service of this kind. Google has a decent voice-command system on most Android phones, and is rumored to be cooking up an even more deluxe version for next year. But Siri matters in a big way. Apple has a history of improving technology that's already out there with better design and more rigorous standards. And Siri only runs on the dual-core processor found in the iPhone 4S, which means that it demands serious computing heft. In other words, there's reason to believe this may finally be speech recognition done right.
It is sad that only adopters of the iPhone 4S will be able to get Siri, which will remain in "beta" according to Apple. But, as someone suggested to me on Twitter, there's the possibility of a version running on the iPad 2, as it has the same processor. Apple would never discuss this, so it's not worth asking, but if Siri is an iPhone success, there's no reason for it not to migrate to iPad, with a full-blown tablet interface.
The real question is how all of this will tie together. What impresses me about Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet is not as much its specs but the fact that you know immediately what to do with it. Pick up any other Android tablet — and pretty much any Android phone, too — and there's less of a sense of motivation. Apple, too, stands apart from Android by putting fun content within easy reach.
But now Apple promises to differentiate further by tying you and your friend's and family's Apple-branded products together for Voltron-like super awesomeness, with systems like Siri and iCloud giving you more control over it all. That is much tougher for Apple, let alone any other company, to pull off, but one that could solidify the company's dominance in the premium phone and tablet realm. And, to borrow a oft-quoted Bill Gates phrase, that's "the magic of software."
So while you may be feeling like your dreams for an iPhone 5 with lasers and hover mode are dashed, Google, Microsoft and many other Apple competitors are probably just a wee bit intimidated by the iPhone 4S ... and even the old iPhone 4, when that iOS update gets here next week.
More from msnbc.com's live coverage of the iPhone 4S launch: