Is Apple losing its “app-eal”?

With such stellar products as the iPhone and iPad, every Apple announcement is a potentially game-changing event. And yesterday’s debut of the new iPhone 4S could also change the marketplace — just not in the way you might think.

By failing to make any major changes to the phone that changed the mobile world — indeed, merely catching up in some areas — Apple has left open the window for Windows and the iPhone’s other competitors, from Samsung to Google to HTC.

The biggest lunch-bag letdown was that Apple failed to introduce a true fourth-generation (4G) iPhone. With the increasing reliance on smartphones for video, websurfing, email and more, the best devices use the fastest, newest networks possible. New 4G phones even spur carriers like AT&T and Verizon to improve their networks.

On that front Apple is lagging — badly.

There are already several 4G Android phones available, one reason phones based on Google’s software have already overtaken Apple, accounting for roughly half of smartphone sales in the U.S., according to some analysts. HTC’s EVO 4G on Sprint uses that company’s “WiMax” technology for super speeds; it’s been on sale for more than a year.

Verizon also has 4G models that use its new “LTE” network, and they are zippy indeed. So what happened with Apple?

A beefed up 8-megapixel camera, voice recognition, and unified notifications are also things Android phones have had for a while. Apple’s finally catching up — but no 4G? Really?

To be fair — and awfully confusing — there will be a semi-4G iPhone 4S coming October 14: AT&T’s version of the iPhone will use its “HSPA+” higher speed data network (the Verizon and Sprint versions will use slower, older data networks).

Technically speaking, HSPA+ is not a full-blown, 4G technology, like WiMax or LTE: It’s merely an enhancement to an earlier technology. But HSPA+ is pretty darn fast — fast enough that T-Mobile has been advertising it as “4G” anyway.

(Whether AT&T will start advertising that it has “the only 4G iPhone” remains unclear –I asked. It certainly sounds better than, “We have the only HSPA+ iPhone!”)

But AT&T itself plans to replace that network, meaning if you want to avoid obsolescence and get a fast 4G phone, you’ll have to buy an Android smartphone on Verizon or Sprint. No iPhone for you.

Apple’s announcement yesterday must have made Google, Motorola, and the slew of competing handset makers like Samsung, LG, and HTC very happy. The Android camp has staked out the high ground (and low ground, and middle ground), and Apple seems content to merely maintain its position.

Microsoft, Nokia, and RIM (makers of the Blackberry), must have breathed a major collective sigh of relief, too. There’s still a chance — tiny though it may be — for them to resuscitate their smartphone ambitions.

Microsoft last week released an updated version of its mobile phone software, called Windows Phone 7.5. It broke no major new ground, but it did clean up some basic problems. And Microsoft has a deal to put its software on Nokia’s handsets, some of the most reliable phones with some of the best voice quality in the world.

Meanwhile, Google’s proposed purchase of Motorola’s handset business may further advance its gains in the market. Motorola’s latest high-end phone, the Droid Bionic on Verizon, has a dual-core processor — and uses the 4G LTE network. You want cutting edge? THAT is the state-of-the-art in mobile handsets.

In the wings lurks RIM and its Blackberry phones, still a staple in the business arena. RIM has been criticized for failing to keep up with the rest of the smartphone market. Now, Apple has given it some breathing room (and RIM has some cool software up its sleeve from QNX that could get it back into the mainstream).

So Apple’s lack of news this week may encourage competition. We’re already seeing the beginnings of a technology battle in handsets similar to the PC wars of the ’80s, which led to faster computers and lower prices. Here’s hoping the same thing happens in the smartphone market.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at



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