The iPhone 5’s technical specifications and the early reactions to some are signs the smartphone hardware market is maturing, Apple’s fan base and tech media cheer squad are not, and that the real action is now in software.

Yes, Apple really did announce a device called iPhone 5 overnight Australian time. That new integer removed one cause of disappointment that accompanied the launch of the iPhone 4S last October. Yes, it’s a whole new iPhone, not just a minor improvement. Says Apple.

But is it, as Apple claims on its website, “The biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone”?

Not really. Except in the boringly literal sense that it’s got a bigger 4-inch screen compared with the iPhone’s traditional 3.5-inch. Big enough to provide more to look at, but not so big that it wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in the hand.

Pretty much everything else is either a catch-up to other manufacturers’ flagship devices (like 4G transceivers that actually work with Australian phone networks) or specs we expect (like the ability to play HD video, eight-megapixel camera and the usual array of sensors and navigation aids).

Compared with its main rival, the Samsung Galaxy S III released at the end of May, the iPhone has a smaller screen, worse battery life with no ability to swap in a freshly charged spare, no microSD card slot for more memory, and yet another different non-standard Apple-only connector called Lightning that won’t work with existing iPhone accessories without a $40 adaptor.

Sure, it’s an iPhone, so it’ll presumably still have the magical power to hypnotise people into queuing outside Apple stores at midnight. The magical power to persuade journalists that people tweeting about untucked shirts is news. And to persuade readers that, yes, it is.

But how long will this magic last when, as courts have started to decide, there’s not that much difference between Samsung’s shiny thing and Apple’s? When Apple has now sold so many million iPhones that there’s simply no cool-kid cachet any more? When Microsoft will offer a radically different and potentially more forward-looking interface?

There was some criticism this morning that the iPhone didn’t have near field communication (NFC), with its ability to participate in contactless payment systems. “The decision to not support NFC in the iPhone5 will create serious long-term problems for Visa and MasterCard,” tweeted Brett King, founder of Movenbank, a smartphone-based cardless banking service that’s not a bank.

Perhaps. But if the iPhone 5 had included NFC today, how would Apple persuade people to buy an iPhone 6 next year, or the year after? By then the specifications of even mid-range smartphones will be grunty enough for most people.

Apple could release limited-run signature editions, I suppose, like they did with the U2 iPod. The logical choice would be a Coldplay iPhone. Either that or Susan Boyle, right?

The murmurs of disappointment on the internet were palpable this morning. But perhaps that’s as it should be. The smartphone is just the platform, and the real innovation will now be the applications that take advantage of several billion humans having always-on mobile connectivity.

The phone itself shouldn’t be the focus of attention any more.

Or, as my friend Snarky Platypus tweeted: “There are a lot of things that feel better in the hand than a bloody phone.” So hands off the phone.

*Disclosure: Stilgherrian is currently attending Microsoft’s TechEd 2012 on the Gold Coast as its guest. Samsung has provided a review unit Galaxy S III. He also uses a MacBook Pro. Very ecumenical.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey