Home / Opinions / Back to the Future: Why the 3GS Matters More Than the iPhone 4S

Back to the Future: Why the iPhone 4S Matters Less Than the 3GS

Gordon Kelly



Were you disappointed by the iPhone 4S? Too bad.

The world's most highly valued company fulfilled its promise. It gathered journalists into its Cupertino headquarters and came through on its pre-event proclamation: 'Let's talk iPhone'. Consumers and journalists alike simply focused on the wrong model. Apple's excitement was not about the iPhone 4S, but the iPhone 3GS.


Tim Cook, in his maiden speech following Steve Jobs' retirement, dropped hints from the beginning. "Despite all [its] success and momentum, the iPhone has five per cent share of the worldwide market of handsets," he explained in a rare, but crucial moment of humility. "I could have shown a much larger number if I just showed smartphones, but that’s not how we look at it." Apple events are famed for their slow burn beginnings, but this was the second most important statement of the evening. It was followed by the most important: "We believe that over time all phones become smartphones. This market is an enormous opportunity."

The world missed it: Apple is going mass market.


It is also going business. "Momentum is far outpacing the industry. It’s not just consumer, 93% of the Fortune 500 are testing or deploying the iPhone. It’s consistently rated #1 in every customer satisfaction ranking I can find." Business and mainstream consumers share two common traits, they are cheap and they are slow. It you're reading this then the likelihood is the majority of your friends have some kind of smartphone. The iPhone 4S is for you. It is for the five per cent. The iPhone 3GS is for the remaining 95 per cent.

By keeping a two generation old handset Apple is making a couple of serious statements. Firstly that you can now own an iPhone for free (with obvious contractual caveats), and secondly that it isn't abandoning older tech. Corporations move with the agility of oil tankers and knowing investment in a range of handsets won't see them rendered obsolete in two years is as significant as their reduced price tag. Whatever the reason(s) eager fanboys didn’t get their shiny new iPhone 5, a considerable factor for Apple will have been keeping app development flourishing across older models. Running iPhone apps on an iPad is already a clumsy experience, introducing yet another display size and screen resolution will only make that worse.


October 6, 2011, 3:46 pm

Gordon: I totally agree with you. Good article.


October 6, 2011, 4:32 pm

Interesting take. Last time I checked, Apple wasn't the best at supporting older products. I feel that Apple have been forced into keeping the 3GS by both lack of balls and by a sad twist of events.

Tim Cook should have called the current 4S the iPhone 5 and be damned with what ever anyone said about it keeping the same shape as the 4. Steve would have spun it in to a line explaining that the iPhone 4's case was so magical that they decided to keep it. In short he would have made it a selling point, such was his marketing savvy.

So, for whatever reason - the predicted iPhone 5's design didn't cut the mustard with the top brass or had technical difficulties through development, but in my opinion (for what it's worth!), Apple always intended to launch a new shape phone in time for this Christmas. Tim Cook should have just called the 4S the '5' and sales would have rocketed and they would have killed off the 3GS.

Do you really think Apple's plan is to conquer the mass market with a technologically obsolete phone from 2009? Like it or not, I think Apple will have to diversify with new products in different price categories and aimed at different demographics.


October 6, 2011, 5:30 pm

@ ElectricSheep:

I would welcome a thinner screen bezel in the same body of iPhone 4. What is missing in iPhone 4S that everyone is moaning about? Like Gordon has rightly put and I quote, "almost every aspect of the iPhone 4S – processor, camera, video, software, antenna, battery, capacity and Siri – is what was hoped for in an iPhone 5"

Apple is known to keep the same design and form factor for a long time of a product line. Look at Macbook Pro unibody what has changed since it's inception. Nothing but the internals. It is still selling like hot cakes because it is beautiful, sturdy and reliable.


October 6, 2011, 8:58 pm

>>Apple wasn't the best at supporting older products.

Out of interest, who do you think is the best?
I agree that support lifecycle for devices like these is not very good, but from what I can tell Apple's isn't the worst.

Eg. HTC Touch Pro, came out about the same time as the 3G. The last download I can find from HTC is dated 7-7-2009, the 3G was 9-3-2011, nearly 2 years longer.

The Doctor

October 7, 2011, 2:56 pm

Keeping the 3GS is not about getting hold of more customers in existing markets, it's about trying to bolster Apple's share in emerging markets where the cheap phone is still king.

For most people in India and Brazil, an iPhone 4S is a dream phone and a basic Nokia is the most likely alternative. However, the low(er) cost of a nearly 3-year old design means that an Apple product will become a genuinely aspirational product and give the brand more traction. Think BMW rather than Aston Martin.

However, keeping the 3GS exposes Apple to a few problems. It can either continue to support older products and be hamstrung by the consequences of maintaining backward compatibility (like MS and WIndows) or it can experience what Android phone manufacturers currently suffer where people who bought an HTC Hero whine how unfair it is that HTC isn't providing them an update to Gingerbread....


October 7, 2011, 10:37 pm

Agree with most of this (and thank you, it always amazes me how few tech sites sit back and think about why certain product decisions are made) but this bit I'm not so sure about:

"After all the response to the iPhone 4S has already been largely underwhelming"

It's been underwhelming from the geeksphere where shiny new form factors and unending lists of features are what counts. I'm not convinced that's going to be the case with the mass market. UK pre-orders have already jumped to 1-2 weeks delivery and that's for the unlocked models from the Apple store rather than carrier subsidised upgrades. There's a LOT of people out there on 3GS phones coming to the end of their contract and, let's face it, the iPhone 4 is still a gorgeous looking phone. The 4S has a couple of features that are really going to appeal to consumers, namely a better camera and Siri. Siri in particular is the feature I think geeks are overlooking but if it really does work as well as its supposed to (and the initial hands-on were good) it's got a good chance of being a system seller all on its own.


October 10, 2011, 10:35 pm

I think it has been underwhelming to people in general, but that is far from saying it is a bad phone. To the contrary, I do stress every aspect of the phone is new and initial pre-orders are outstanding.

I don't believe anyone who saw the iPhone 4S didn't let out a short sigh on first sight though, we always want a new model to look new in an ideal world.


October 10, 2011, 10:39 pm

It certainly will be for emerging markets, but don't discount the fact that smartphones are still too expensive for the majority of people. A 2 (not 3) year old iPhone is still vastly better equipped and manufactured than most rival smartphones in its price bracket too and the vast app support will be vital.

You are completely right, however, legacy support brings with it a whole new set of problems, but all our products become legacy at some point and I don't think any of us will see better support for products just a few generations old as a bad thing.


October 10, 2011, 10:40 pm

Many thanks.


October 12, 2011, 7:05 pm

Do you know what people in India make? I don't think even a 3GS is going to be on their radar. It might be "free" in the UK/US with a contract, but it's another world (literally) over there. The rich there, they can get the 4S, the rest of the people can only afford the most basic dumbphone.

This article is full of wrong, normally I agree with Gordon, but I think he's way off here. The 3GS is to get everyone off Blackberries and to fight the lower end Android phones. Considering how slow my gf's 3GS was with iOS 4 and the crashes she gets now with her iPhone 4 - I wouldn't recommend anyone hoping to get good performance with a 3GS on iOS5. But perhaps Apple have finally optimised things a bit, that would inspire confidence but they only talk about new features so I would doubt it.


October 12, 2011, 7:13 pm

Gordon, one thing Apple rarely are is misunderstood. I think you are reading too much into this and your conclusions make little sense. Your conclusion seems to state that Apple aren't doing this to sell the 3G, but to show they support their phones for years? What kind of backwards logic is that, and so very non-Apple.

The 3GS is to get people in developed nations who cannot afford the 4 or 4S to get an iPhone which they've aspired to for ages. Instead of getting a "cheap Android iPhone copy" or a Blackberry (and now with iMessage, Apple has a good way to counter BBM) they can now own a "premium brand" iPhone.


October 13, 2011, 4:58 pm

Hi HK, I think you're misunderstanding my points.

The whole argument is it IS very non-Apple, that is why it is such big news. When has Apple last chose to hold onto legacy hardware? It is for businesses primarily to know they can invest in Apple handsets and see long term software support. The cheaper models will then also appeal to those on budget BlackBerry and Android handsets - hence iMessage. In short we are arguing the same point and I'm not sure how you missed that in my feature.

I think the developing nations aspect is overplayed. Yes cheaper iPhones will be appealing, but for most any mobile phone is expensive, let alone one which requires a contract and data. To sell iPhones to the masses here is a very, very long term goal.


October 14, 2011, 6:28 pm

"Simply housing it in an iPhone 4 chassis is a deal breaker for many which shows Apple is reaping the superficialities it has sown. "
Get out of my brain, you! ;)


October 14, 2011, 6:31 pm

@HK: Your girlfriend manages to crash the iPhone4? :-| Good grief man, what's she doing to it!?! :P

@The Doctor: Indeed, the Android whiners, oh God... *rolls eyes*

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