Reading the Signs: The iPhone and Semiotic Silliness

Steve Wildstrom / September 27th, 2011

Image from Apple invitationNow that Apple has ended speculation about when it will make its long-awaited iPhone announcement, pundits, deprived of any actual news, have been trying to divine the hidden meaning in Apple’s clever invitation to the Oct. 4 media event.

The prize for most comprehensive effort goes to Prof. Helmut Weltschmertz of the Koblenz Institute of Numerology and Used Car Sales (thanks to Cnet’s Rafe Needleman for pointing it out), who found the “280” on the map icon signifies 280 new features.

But ostensibly serious analysts didn’t do a lot better at semiotics (the science of interpreting signs, and I word that I don’t think I have ever used in a sentence before.) Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster took time off from predicting the imminent arrival of an Apple-branded TV, to interpret the “Let’s talk iPhone” tag line in a letter to clients. “In the past,” Munster wrote (as reported by Fortune’s Philip Elmer-Dewitt), “Apple has used its invitation to include cryptic hints as to what it will announce. The phrase on this year’s invite, ‘Let’s talk iPhone’ may be a simple play on words, but may also refer to new speech-based features for the iPhone.” It’s been widely expected for a long time that the next version of the iPhone would include a considerable expansion of voice features based on its 2010 purchase of Siri and details of the voice-based “Assistant” have been dribbling out for days. So Munster’s observation is about as helpful as noting that the pin on the map represents the location of Apple’s Cupertino campus.

Numerous soothsayers got excited about the 1 on the phone icon, interpreting it to mean that Apple would only be announcing one iPhone next week. Since Apple has only announced one new phone at each of four previous iPhone events, this seems a safe bet. Folks predicting a smaller or cheaper companion to what may or may not be called the iPhone 5 have never made a compelling case either that such a product was under development or that its development was part of any reasonable Apple product strategy.

Actually, we have a better than usual idea of what is coming Tuesday. The iPhone’s software has always been more important and interesting than the hardware and the core new features of the next model were laid out last spring during the announcement of iOS 5.0 at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. There will certainly stuff that goes beyond what was discussed at WDC, including advanced voice support and perhaps deeper Facebook integration, as suggested by my colleague Peter Lewis.

But we have six full days until the event. Expect much breathless speculation, most of it as silly as Prof. Weltschmertz.

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
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