Technically the iPhone 4S doesn’t really pull ahead of the competition: Android-based phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II.
The iPhone 4S even has some worse specifications than the iPhone 4. It is 3 grams heavier and its standby battery life is 30% less. The screen is no larger – it remains smaller than the standard set by the competition. On the other hand the user experience is improved in several ways: the phone is more responsive thanks to a faster processor; it takes better photographs; and Apple has taken yet another whack at the so-far intractable problem of usable voice control. A great benefit to Apple, though not so much to its users, is that the new Qualcomm baseband chip works for all carriers worldwide, so Apple no longer needs different innards for AT&T and Verizon (though Verizon was presumably disappointed that Apple didn’t add a chip for LTE support).
Since its revolutionary debut, the history of the iPhone has been one of evolutionary improvements, and the improvements of the iPhone 4S over the iPhone 4 are in proportion to the improvements in each of the previous generations. The 4S seems to be about consolidation, creating a phone that will work on more networks around the world, and that will remain reliably manufacturable in vast volumes. It’s a risk-averse, revenue-hungry version, as is appropriate for an incumbent leader.
The technical improvements in the iPhone 4S would have been underwhelming if it had been called the iPhone 5, but for a half-generation they are adequate. By mid-2012 several technologies will have ripened sufficiently to make a big jump.
First, Apple will have had time to move their CPU manufacturing to TSMC’s 28 nm process, yielding a major improvement in battery life from the 45 nm process of the current A5, which will be partially negated by the monstrous power of the rumored 4-core A6 design, though the Linley report cautions that it may not be all plain sailing.
Also by mid-2012 Qualcomm may have delivered a world-compatible single-chip baseband that includes LTE (aka ‘real 4G’).
But the 2012 iPhone faces a serious problem. It will continue to suffer a power, weight and thin-ness disadvantage relative to Samsung smartphones until Apple stops using LCD displays. Because they don’t require back-lighting, Super AMOLED display panels are thinner, lighter and consume less power than LCDs. Unfortunately for Apple, Samsung is the leading supplier of AMOLED displays, and Apple’s relationship with Samsung continues to deteriorate. Other LCD alternatives like Qualcomm’s Mirasol are unlikely to be mature enough to rely on by mid-2012. The mid-2012 iPhone will need a larger display, but it looks as though it will continue to be a thick, power hungry LCD.