Apple Inc beefed up its new iPhone with faster chips and better cameras, seeking to set its handset apart from the rising tide of Google Android smartphones.
But the one feature that got the most "oohs" and "ahhs" from the audience at Tuesday's iPhone unveiling was the built-in voice-recognition technology, dubbed "Siri".
Apple demonstrated a variety of scenarios in which users of the new iPhone 4S seemed to hold a conversation with the device, managing calendar appointments, finding restaurants and inquiring about the weather.
"That was a pretty big step forward," said Forrester Research analyst Frank Gillett, who attended the launch at Apple headquarters. "To be able to just converse with your gadget. You've got more options than just poking and swiping at it with your finger."
Whether such high-tech wizardry is enough to make the iPhone 4S a must-have in consumers' eyes, and set it apart from the competition, remains to be seen.
"It's not clear that Siri is sufficient to make or break a purchase decision," said John Jackson, an analyst at CCS Insight. "It's a better mousetrap. History tells us users don't use this technology in great numbers."
Voice recognition technology isn't new. Software companies have offered technology allowing people to do dictation, with varying results, on their personal computers for more than a decade. Even low-tech gizmos like vehicle-GPS units made by Garmin and others can be voice-enabled.
Google introduced voice recognition technology to its Android smartphone software more than a year ago, and the company recently introduced a voice-recognition capability into its flagship Web search engine.
But Gillett said Apple had taken the technology beyond merely recognizing spoken words. The Siri technology could take actions based on people's words, making it closer to a true "personal assistant," he said.
It talks back!
During demonstrations, an Apple executive asked the phone whether he needed a raincoat today, and the phone responded: "It sure looks like rain today."
A separate video of Siri technology in action, screened during the event, depicted a jogger telling his phone to book an appointment at noon, with the phone responding, in a robotic female voice, that he already had an appointment at that time.
Siri will initially be available with support for English, French and German with more languages soon, Apple said. The company acquired Siri, the maker of the technology, early last year.
Apple's iPhone, first introduced in 2007, is the No. 1 selling smartphone in the world. But phones based on Google Inc's Android operating system, which is available for free to handset vendors such as Motorola, HTC Corp and Samsung Electronics, have a greater combined market share than Apple's iPhones.
Inside iPhone 4S is a dual-core A5 processor, designed by Apple, with improved graphics capabilities for video games, as well as special image processing capabilities for improving photo and video performance. The camera got a boost to 8 megapixel resolution, up from the prior model's 5 megapixels.
Apple also provided more details on forthcoming Internet-based "cloud" features on Tuesday. Users of iPhones and iPad tablets will be able to store their music, photos and other data on Apple's remote servers, similar to services offered by Google and Amazon.com Inc.
For all the hardware improvements, Gartner analyst Van Baker said it was the Siri technology that will really make the iPhone 4S stand apart.
"It is very cutting-edge," he said. "They have raised the bar."