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iPhone 4S launch highlights flaws in Apple’s culture of secrecy

The mountain shuddered in labour – and produced a ridiculous little mouse. The mouse in question is the iPhone 4S; the mountain, the hyperbolic rumour machine which would have had us believe, until the very last moment, that Apple was in fact launching the no-doubt-iconic iPhone 5, instead of a mere upgrade.

If the result has been widespread disappointment, the secretive folk at Cupertino, California, have only themselves to blame for their botched PR. Journalists, rather like Nature, abhor a vacuum. And when there is only rumour to fill it – owing to Apple’s paranoid obsession with controlling every detail of a launch – this is the sort of thing that results.

As far as I can tell, the foundation of these “iPhone 5” rumours was some cryptic remarks made by former US presidential candidate Al Gore at the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit in South Africa. Gore is an Apple non-executive director (which is why he was believed) and he let slip that Apple would imminently be launching two models, dubbed the 5 and the 4.5.

I have no idea whether this was simply mischievous misinformation, or Gore himself being ill-informed and indiscreet. Believe me, the latter would not be surprising, even at board level. Apple prides itself on a degree of internal information control, policed by fear, that would have been the envy of the KGB. It’s not your job title that counts in this corporation, but how much you can reliably piece together from your internal contacts just before a big launch. Under a supremely capable autocrat like Steve Jobs, this system of divide and rule has worked well for Apple. It remains to be seen whether his successor, Tim Cook, will be equally successful in manipulating it.

Early signs are not promising. The iPhone 4S, which will appear in the UK on October 14th, may not be the great technological leap forward that was expected. But it is a useful and innovative launch whose value will probably be dissipated in the flotsam and jetsam of deflated hype.

Point one: it embodies Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 5. This, among other things, will give Apple a better handle on technical elements of its Android competition, by allowing customers to access cloud technology that dispenses with the need for desktop computers when downloading music, photos and apps. Point two: the 4S launch will now allow Apple to start offering the older 3GS phone free with a contract. By making iPhones more attractively priced at the lower end, Apple may well be able to blunt Google’s growing stranglehold on the total smartphone sector.

And not before time. Recent research released by Nielsen reveals that, within the UK market over the past 6 months, 44% of smartphone purchases were powered by Android, well ahead of RIM/Blackberry’s 25% and Apple’s 18%.

Premium pricing and its “walled garden” operating system put Apple at a disadvantage when it comes to market share. Interestingly, however, Apple products seem to inspire the most loyalty, with 86% of iPhone users saying they were “highly satisfied” compared to 74% of all smartphone users.

Which is all very well, except you’ve got to persuade the blighters to buy your product in the first place before you can inspire such laudable brand loyalty.

UPDATE 6/10/11: Appropriately, perhaps, the pithiest epitaph to Steve Jobs, who died late last night, can be found on Twitter: “Three apples changed the world. First one seduced Eve, 2nd fell on Newton and 3rd was offered to the world half bitten by Steve Jobs.” Or minor alternatives to the same effect.

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