The IPhone 4S Breaks Sales Records: Is It Still Disappointing?

When the iPhone 4S was first announced at the Apple media event in early October, there was a tendency among journalists to characterize it as a disappointment. We had all been anticipating a device, called the iPhone 5, that was was to have a thinner, lighter profile and a bigger 4-inch screen; this iPhone 5 was to have been so revolutionary that Apple's competitors would have been frantically scrambling to design their own thinner, lighter, larger mobile devices. That Apple CEO Tim Cook only revealed an iPhone 4S, with a nearly identical body to the squared-off iPhone 4, was written off in CNN, Reuters, cnet, The Week, Gizmodo, the L.A. Times, Business Insider and this publication as a "letdown," a "dud," a "stumble," and a "gaffe."

Now, however, Apple has revealed that it sold over one million of its new iPhones in the first 24 hours of its pre-sale, breaking the previous one day sales record (600,000 units in 24 hours) held by the iPhone 4. Orders have not tapered off, according to a J.P. Morgan analyst quoted in All Things Digital. Does this mean, as a smug, gloating Apple press suggests, that the iPhone 4S can no longer be considered disappointing?

Absolutely not. If success is determined purely by sales numbers, then Windows Vista would be considered an achievement of unspeakable magnitude. And anyway, anticipation of the new iPhone was so hot that Cook and Apple lead designer Jonathan Ive could have folded up a piece of wet cardboard into an oblong rectangular prism, spray-painted it black with silver accents and stamped, in White-Out, the words "iPhone 5" on the back, and the resulting product would have sold at least better than the latest crop of BlackBerry phones.

This time around, huge sales were a given: A special cocktail of extreme, ardent iPhone loyalty among consumers, the longer-than-usual 16-month wait for a new model, and the availability of the iPhone for pre-order on three American mobile carriers, rather than only AT&T, made the financial success of whichever model iPhone that Apple released next an inevitability.

And yet should pure sales be the basis for judging whether or not a product of any kind is a disappointment? No intelligent, respected writer in 2011 judges movies based on their box offices gross, nor television shows on their Nielsen ratings, nor albums on their position on the Billboard charts; to that point, you probably wouldn't trust any critic who told you that the second-best movie of the year was "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" or that Justin Bieber's "Never Say Never: The Remixes (EP)" was a serious contender for album of the year. Steve Jobs has been convincingly eulogized as a rock star and an artist; is it time that we begin to judge his company's--and all tech company's--products not only by their financial success in the consumer market, but as works of art in terms of their appeal and their utility? Or does technology, and especially consumer-focused technology, fundamentally operate on a separate plane than movies, music and TV shows, in which the HP Touchpad is a flop and Windows Vista is a smashing success (at least ten times more sales than Mac OS X Lion to date) and there is no gray area in between?

Let us assume, as a thought experiment, that it does not. Let us assume that Internet Explorer is not a better web browser than Google Chrome (it is not), and that Hotmail is not a better email client than Microsoft Outlook is not a better email client than Gmail (it also is not). Let's pretend that money is not the be-all end-all of technology and that Steve Jobs' maxim for determining success rings true:

Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me ... Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful... that's what matters to me.

In most contemporary popular mediums, works are judged by two general criteria: financial success and artistic success. One does not necessarily supersede the other, though in general, artistic successes are more treasured and highly-valued over time in the American consciousness than are mindless, audience-baiting sequels and serials. A movie like "Fast Five" can be a box office smash, but a critical dud; while a film like, say, Cannes winner "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" can be a critical smash but a box office no-show. Some rare films--like "Avatar," for example--are both hugely successful financially and big hits with serious critics as well and are fairly impossible to call disappointing in either a fiscal or critical sense with a straight face.

It is not an overstatement to say that, beginning with the release of the original iPhone in 2007, each successive iteration of the Apple device has been an "Avatar" phone: universally beloved, universally heralded by its judges and universally selling a hell of a lot of units. Like the iPad and iPod, the iPhone has been the gold standard in its market for five generations running.

What perhaps we are seeing with the iPhone 4S--and what a whole lot of data, both quantitative and anecdotal--is that the iPhone 4S, before its release, exists somewhere in between "Avatar" and "Fast Five." It may not remain a mild disappointment once users try out Siri or the new A5 Processor for themselves; but for now, vocal consumer enthusiasm is muted. Some real-time social media analytics mining done by Crimson Hexagon suggests that 49 percent of Twitter users initially reacted with disappointment to the Apple keynote (Pointless film comparison: "Alice in Wonderland" starring Johnny Depp was also judged to be disappointing by 49 percent of critics); a BrandIndex survey of consumers (only available for paid customers) also shows that, on the day of the iPhone 4S announcement, positive buzz surrounding Apple actually fell slightly, unusual for the company on the day of a keynote.

Most of this--and most of the knee-jerk journalist reaction--was probably borne out of that unfulfilled expectation of an iPhone 4S, of a radically different design that never emerged on that day in Cupertino. But now that the reality of the iPhone 4S (and the non-reality of the iPhone 5) is sinking in, and the sales figures have been reported, the newest iPhone can no longer be called a disappointment financially--but will critical adulation follow the money? And even if it does, will the public's lingering disappointment with the iPhone 4S ever fade completely?

Critically, I doubt that the iPhone 4S will receive anything but absolute praise; internal upgrades to what is already one of the best smartphones on the planet should earn much adulation from the tech press. Whether or not the lingering public disappointment with the iPhone 4S will cease to linger, however, seems less sure. It depends on Apple's rebound phone, whether they can once again wow with the iPhone 5, as they did with the iPhone 4 following the iPhone 3GS. If they cannot, then Apple may actually start losing customers, not just hypothetically lose customers in the feverishly wishful thoughts of competing execs.

To make another comparison to popular culture, imagine that all of the iPhones heretofore released represent different albums by Radiohead, an amazingly consistent rock band that, since 1995's The Bends, have not released an album that could not be classified as great. If the original iPhone was the OK Computer--the groundbreaking instant masterpiece that everyone tried to emulate--and the iPhone 4 was Kid A--the total U-turn that once again transformed music--the iPhone 4S is looking like The King of Limbs, an incredibly solid, long-awaited followup album that (perhaps unfairly) disappointed some listeners for its failure to reinvent the popular music landscape as its predecessor had.

For now, the iPhone 4S appears headed for the same fate as "The King of Limbs"--well-selling, well-known, critically-lauded, totally omnipresent--and yet shrouded with the sense that its creators could have done more. Unless Siri really is a world-changing, mind-blowing feature, the iPhone 4S appears bound to be remembered with a tinge of disappointment for what could have been. The sales are there, and the glowing reviews are arriving, but the rabid anticipation is not. Based on all of these criteria for technological success--and let's note that there is no real Rottentomatoes for gadgets--the iPhone 4S appears destined to be looked back upon as a "King of Limbs" smartphone. Here, we have a real-life OK computer.