KELLNER: Apple’s iPhone 4S — buy or wait?

It wasn’t exactly equal to the “Great Disappointment” of Oct. 23, 1844, when followers of lay Baptist preacher William Miller awoke to the bitter fact that a prophesied return of Jesus Christ didn’t materialize. But Tuesday's Apple Inc. news conference, which launched a rather improved iPhone 4 model, the iPhone 4S, apparently was a similar letdown to a number of consumers and industry pundits.

Where is the bigger display screen? What about a thinner phone? And a number — we want a new number.

Sigh. While a new, nearly inconceivable iPhone model that was thinner, had a larger screen and perhaps also found you the best parking spot at the mall would be something to cheer about, the plain fact of the matter is — that phone isn’t here; and it’s not on the horizon. And, like the groundswell for one or another politician to enter the 2012 Republican presidential nominating scrum, not much evidence for its existence has been produced either.

Have you seen, or held, an iPhone 5? I haven’t, and I don’t know anyone who has.

This being the case, consumers have to decide what, if anything, to do with this new model. Your columnist has not seen or held one of the new iPhone 4S models yet, and while I hope to review one, my observations here are based in part on what Apple is promising, as well as on past experience with the iPhone.

The promise: a faster, more powerful processing chip; a better still-photo camera producing 8 megapixel images; and full 1080p high definition video, with image stabilization. Oh, and now the maximum storage is 64 gigabytes, a rather incredible amount when you think about it. More promise: Siri, a “personal assistant” program that’ll answer spoken questions and perhaps let you dictate email replies while on the run.

For many of us, these improvements alone will be worth the upgrade. Again, we just don’t know when — or if — an “iPhone 5” is coming. It could be next week, but is more likely to be sometime next year. And thereby hangs a decision point, I think.

Some of us buy and use smartphones for convenience and enjoyment. That’s fine, of course, and if you’re not dependent upon a smartphone for your livelihood, you can perhaps be a bit more casual in what you select and when you buy it.

But most of us, I suspect, use our smartphones for business and work-related tasks. Whether it’s President Obama with his specially encrypted BlackBerry, or the neighborhood Realtor seeking to pair a young couple with their first home, smartphones assume more importance than just being another way to play Sudoku.

Four years into the iPhone era, I have yet to see any other platform come close to Apple’s overall quality, applications reliability (and variety), and sheer elegance. The latter may be in the eye of the beholder, but the vast numbers of iPhones sold makes this a safe statement, in my opinion.

Should iPhone 4 users upgrade? Absent a unit to review, I can’t say definitively. But if the device performs as advertised, particularly on the picture- and video-taking end, it’s going to be mighty tempting.

The “Siri” program, apparently, will need the new dual-core processor in the iPhone 4S to work. Fair enough, I suppose. This, too, will be a great motivator. I was wrong when I said, on WTTG-TV on Tuesday, that Siri will let you command the phone hands-free: you must press a microphone button to get things going. But software to modify that will be available from other developers. And even with the button-press requirement, the idea that you can ask your phone for a weather or stock update and have it “answer” you is relatively awesome.

There is one other group of people who should rejoice at the new iPhone announcement, even if it wasn’t the “5” for which they’d hoped. These are the customers and shareholders of Sprint/Nextel, which until now has been absent in the iPhone game. Such a hole in the Sprint product lineup has hurt the firm, executives there say, and having bridged the gap, particularly with an iPhone that can work on Sprint’s CDMA system as well as the rest of the world’s GSM networks, is a huge plus.

Meanwhile, all iPhone users will be able to get their hands on the new iOS 5, the operating system for iPhones and iPads, next week. That should provide enough merriment to make even a wait for a hardware upgrade tolerable.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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