Walt Mossberg's seemingly tepid praise ("Or Just Get OS 3.0") leads to the question whether Apple must shock the world with every product release in order to succeed, or can do a good business by diligently keeping its buttons polished. To address that question, let's first go back in time a year and look at the 3G iPhone which is now joined by the relatively upscale 3GS.
From where I stand as an iPhone 1.0 user (8GB model), the iPhone 3G was not a must-have product.
Apple's 3G was the same processor, but a faster network connection, and I didn't jump because my beef with my phone was not AT&T's Edge speeds but the phone's anemic processor -- I got skips during scrolling and resizing, and unexpected pauses while apps are loading or changing, etc. And the camera was a disappointment: everything's blurry, because the effective shutter speed is so slow. Low light? Good luck. I couldn't use it to replace my iPod because I simply have far too much music to fit in anything like 8GB, and even with cut-down playlists I get messages about my phone filling and have to throw out voicemail.
3GS (remember the Apple GS, anyone? Maybe this is a little joke by insiders.) offers users access to faster networks just as its predecessor did, but also improves the processor speed, graphics subsystem, storage capacity (by a factor of up to 4!), camera ... and adds video, voice control, compass (what's GPS and continuously-updated maps without turn-by-turn directions?) ... 3GS is a compelling upgrade for initial iPhone users where the 3G was not. Maybe for 3G users in the US -- who enjoy GPS and can live without the compass, and who don't use the camera much or demand that it photograph moving children, and who won't notice the network improvements because AT&T hasn't supported them yet -- the 3GS isn't a must-upgrade proposition. However, for original buyers -- especially buyers whose initial 2-year contracts are just expiring -- the move from iPhone to the new GS seems a sure thing.
Now, let's look at what this means.
Apple's 3G phone is still being offered for sale -- for $99 (in the US, with a contract). This is beginning to look rather like the MacBook v MacBook Pro: if you want an Apple system, you can get in on the ground floor, or you can pay more for perks. What are those perks? Faster processors, better graphics subsystems, improved batteries, and up to quadruple the memory seems a similar recipe in both cases, notebook or phone; however, where the notebook offers perks like a backlit keyboard, the phone offers a compass (for turn-by-turn directions and enhanced gaming controls) and an improved camera that supports video (and presumably behavior as a scanner, á la Delicious Monster). For about twice the money (more, if you max it), you can upgrade to a slicker model (again, notebook or phone). Apple hasn't done badly in notebooks, and Apple's test of this kind of product lineup in phones is far from pointless. If there's no demand for the lower-end model, it can die just like the 4GB iPhone. (Remember that model? And what people paid for it? And how long it lasted?)
Recently, Apple rolled out upgraded specs on new MacBooks. There was no big event (the Pro upgrade and its new 8GB RAM ceiling made the WWDC stage, but the non-pro MacBook upgrade got no such fanfare), there was no claim it was the cat's meow -- it was just an update. This didn't make the new MacBooks a bad deal; it just kept them competitive. Apple's changes in that upgrade might have been nice, but they were by no means a revolution. Yet, without this kind of steady improvement, where would an electronics gadget company be in a few years? Exacly: dead. Unexciting evolutionary improvements are an expected, normal, necessary part of competing in this space. The fact that compasses are cool and that 32GB makes the iPhone a much more serious music player are nice perks -- but the fact that Apple is working to keep the environment on the phone attractive to users and developers is something I think should be recognized as the real revolution.
Apple didn't set out to make its phone all things to all people, it set out to create a carefully cultivated garden and allowed outsiders to plant in the garden only after great protest about the restrictions Apple imposed on users (web-only development? only Apple-vended applications?). Apple is trying to prevent the phone from becoming a virus farm, or from suffering from horribly-behaved applications that can't be killed in the background because they spawn processes users can't see because they have no UI -- and the price at the moment is a lack of background applications (unless they are from Apple) and a single app vendor in Cupertino. Oddly, people have seemingly forgiven Apple for its draconian control over the system, and now content themselves with inquiry into whether background applications are a feature worth the price. Apple's desire to control the platform in order to control the quality of the user experience seems to have lost its ardent haters as the platform has done well in the market.
Apple has been rolling out desktop and notebook computers for years, and few of them have (in comparison to their immediate predecessors) represented a real revolution in computing technology. Apple's distinguishing feature has generally been where the rubber meets the road -- not under the hood, but at the interface between the user and the machine. The GUI, for example. For developers, the Cocoa API. Cultivated simplicity is an Apple virtue, as it is the result of Apple's work to prevent the interface from becoming cluttered with unnecessary and confusing options and the like. Less is more, in some ways.
An evolutionary product refresh coupled with a substantial price break on existing models is the kind of movement that offers Apple both the claim to good movement forward, and the claim to more affordable products with a larger base of increasingly diverse users. Not all these guys will buy medical management applications. But those that don't may be heavily inclined to try out the games ...
In short, Apple's new release isn't a revolution (except maybe for the price of a machine in the class of an iPhone), but this is not a bad thing. Carefully evolving what will likely become Apple's most important platform is something too important for inviring the chaos of revolution at every incarnation. Slow and steady wins the race.
UPDATE: NYT's Pogue blesses the GS: "The new iPhone doesn’t just catch up to its rivals — it vaults a year ahead of them."