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Weekend Tech Blog: Apple fritters

Apple had one of its Next Insanely Great Apple events this past week to introduce the new iPhone 4S — but the wind was knocked out of everyone’s sails with the passing of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. 

Still, the company he built, then rebuilt, goes on, and the need to look at the company with less than gauzy eyes does need to continue, despite your — and my — feelings about the passing of this iconic American genius.

Most noticeable about the New York City event was what didn’t happen: the highly anticipated iPhone 5 didn’t appear. There was only an improved version of the existing iPhone4, dubbed the iPhone4S. The disappointment throughout the blogosphere was palpable. 

The new Apple CEO, Tim Cook, presided over a press event that was stuffed with all the usual Apple event news — new Apple stores worldwide, new stats on Apple’s lead on apps — but the conference felt overlong, stretched with blather but not content, nearly 90 minutes. And there was no “just one more thing,” the usual payoff of an Apple event where some technological goodie was normally announced. Analysts were lukewarm about the announcement.

In retrospect, I wonder if part of the downer feeling was because those Apple lieutenants all knew that Jobs’ death was imminent; he passed away less than 24 hours after the event.  

Another issue, perhaps, was the over-anticipation for what we all thought would be the debut of the next-generation iPhone 5.  The pre-event buzz seemed so real. “T-Mobile will carry the iPhone5!” “A new phone case is being developed for a larger screen!” “J.P. Morgan and Al Gore both say it’s true.” And you wonder why people thought this would be an epic event. Here’s more speculation if you’re interested. Then again, at least one writer on Mashable got it right.

While the introduction was no lollapalooza, the iPhone 4S did break some new ground.  Although the company may have backed away from an iPhone5 — or for all we know, never had one to present — it did offer the upgraded phone with a processor that promised twice the speed, a much improved 8-megapixel camera, and Siri, a new intelligent voice-activated “assistant.” Some found the latter feature exciting. For those of you who want a more detailed report, here’s CNET’s review.

The company also announced the iPhone 4S would be a world phone, with both major worldwide phone standards—CDMA and GSM—accessible from the same phone.  That’s a potential boon to overseas travelers who now can use their iPhone over here and over there—but at a cost.

Perhaps the biggest news is a marketing strategy that puts an Apple cell phone within everyone’s reach. The pricing structure pits the new phone at $199 for a 16 gigabyte (GB) phone, the plainer iPhone4 will cost $99. The big surprise: the iPhone3 GS is free. All these will require a 2-year contract, per usual with phone carriers. Moreover, iOS 5, the latest Apple operating system software for all its mobile devices — iPads, iPhones and iPod Touch —will even work on the 3GS phone model.

And Sprint has joined AT&T and Verizon in offering iPhones.

Apple may have opened a rather large window to Android phone manufacturers and sellers who are coming out with powerful phones well within the speed class — if not all the features — of the iPhone. But there’s little doubt that the iPhone 4S will sell well. A late-breaking announcement on Friday from AT&T Wireless said it had received 200,000 iPhone 4S preorders in the first 12 hours after the phone’s announcement: “the most successful iPhone launch we’ve ever had,” an AT&T spokesperson indicated via email.

There’s also a curious development in the race to bring 4G speeds to the iPhone.The iPhone 4S versions being marketed by both Verizon and Sprint will be confined to the older, slower 3G network, but AT&T has scored bragging rights by enabling its iPhone versions to access its HSPA+ network, which runs roughly twice as fast as 3G.  While not as fast as the company’s 4G LTE network, also under constructon, it still will give AT&T iPhone 4S users a good speed bump over both older AT&T iPhones and competing iPhones. According to AT&T, local Seattle users should get speedy service from their new iPhones since the Seattle-area HSPA+ network is relatively well implemented. 

Should we look at this uninspiring introduction as a first sign that Apple can’t or won’t cut it in a Steve Jobs-less world? I wouldn’t bother. Logic tells us that Apple and Jobs planned the company’s product road map for several years ahead, so this incremental upgrade was no letting down of Apple’s brilliant product-producing machine.

An excellent point about the phone’s modest improvements was made by CNET writer Molly Wood, who noted that Apple is incredibly savvy about product life cycles. Most people who bought the earlier iPhone 3GS are at the end of their two-year contracts with their phone carriers; the idea of buying an advanced phone when the old contract expires at a reasonable price is attractive. Then next year, when the iPhone 5 comes out, it will catch all the iPhone 4 users who saw little in the new phone worthy of an upgrade when THEIR contraxts expire.

I own an iPhone 3GS.  My AT&T contract just expired. And, oh yeah, I’m thinking.

And now for something completely different: I am tired of wires! Anytime I find something to de-tangle my wired world, the happier I am. So if you sense a case of happy feet today, it’s because I discovered a Logitech keyboard and mouse and together take up only a single USB computer port. 

The keyboard is the Logitech Solar Keyboard, with separate models for Windows and Mac computers, and the Logitech M705 mouse, which also works with either operating system. The keyboard, retailing at $79.99, will never need batteries. A little downloadable app will “talk” to your keyboard and tell you precisely how much battery power you have. It’s powered by any light in the room, and according to the website can still stay powered even after 3 months.  The mouse, at $49.99 is advertised to stay powered for three years on a single battery. (Both items can be found on line for roughly $20 less apiece.)

Both use the same tiny Logitech Unifying USB wireless receiver, which allows several Logitech devices to hook up to the same receiver. The keyboard has excellent response and slightly indented keys for easy typing; it’s a delicious keyboard to type on. The mouse just does its job, feels right, and I need do nothing except just use it. I hope Logitech plans to add headsets to the Unifying concept. All those wires gone! All those USB ports freed!

Here’s a few more items your weekend:

  • Swype, the Seattle startup that produces the popular Swype keyboard for Android and other smartphones, has reportedly picked up a $100 million payday. According to Uncrunched,com, the company is being sold to Nuance, the company behind the Dragon Naturally Speaking speecdh software and othger products.  Swype keyboards are downloadable apps that you to type by moving from letter to letter with your finger staying on the keyboard.
  • Amazon’s Kindle Fire is racking up pre-orders on a scale not seen since the introduction of the iPad. According to GigaOm, more than 254,000 tablets have been ordered since its introduction on Sept. 29. The prediction is that the $199 tablet will sell roughly 2.5 million tablets by the end of the 2011 holiday season.
  • Meanwhile, a tablet priced at $35 — yes, $35 —  developed for India’s educational needs was released as a prototype this week in New Delhi.  The tablet isn’t quite up to iPad quality  —I watched a CNN report and the touch screen looked a little unsensitive — but it was fully operational and could go a long way to getting computers into the hands of large numbers of people and at affordable prices. Maybe this project will succeed where other low cost efforts, such as the One Laptop Per Child project seemingly have failed to make any significant impact. (Geeks note: The specs are respectable, including an Android 2.2 operating system, a 7-inch resistive screen, 366 MHz chip and a separate HD processor, 256 megabyte of RAM,, 2 gigabytes of  onboard memory with an SD card slot capabile of up to 32GB of memory, two USB ports, and comes onto the market with WiFi. Optionally, it will be open to future GPRS and 3G data networks.)  

I wonder what this will do to the price of tablets if this bad boy gets loose in the consumer market. Speculation from Nomura International analyst Richard Windsor, as quoted by BGR, suggests that Android tablet makers better follow Amazon’s low end pricing of the Kindle Fire and leave the high end to the iPad. Good advice, perhaps, but I wonder how he would factor in these new Indian tablets which, after all are even more of a killer-price device than the Amazon  killer-price device.

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