The iPhone 5: a case study in mediocrity and Apple's rotten ethos

So there you have it - the iPhone 5 is now among us. There was no clever surprise name conjured up at the last minute and, in all honesty, no real standout features. In fact, the unthinkable may just have happened yesterday: the iPhone 5 arrived, and it isn't the greatest phone the world has ever seen. Sexy svelte body and carefully considered screen size aside, it just didn't have the 'wow' factor you expect from a blockbuster smartphone launch in 2012, let alone an Apple unveil.

It was, for me, an underwhelming night that confirmed a number of uncomfortable truths, the first being that Tim Cook is a poor man's Steve Jobs. On a personal level, I'm not a fan of either man, though I can of course appreciate Jobs' invaluable contribution to the tech industry. Moreover, I can't help but feel that Jobs would have somehow managed to sell us the iPhone 5, to find its one really special feature and force us to appreciate it.

Maybe there's something massively unique and different about Lightning that I still don't know, or maybe the five-element sapphire lens on the improved camera sets the iPhone 5 apart from its rivals for another year. Whatever the case, I was – like many others – ready to be amazed by the iPhone 5, yet under Cook's stewardship it has been allowed to disappoint.

But more than that, I think, is the phone itself. It's not that it isn't good, it's just not great. There's still much to recommend it, like the expanded 4in display - an example of Apple's careful consideration of design aspects, where it could have easily fallen victim to knee-jerk reaction syndrome and made a disproportionately large unit. What there isn't either a sense of wholeness – a feeling that Apple did absolutely everything it could to make the best possible handset given the technology available – or the kind of laterally innovative killer feature that people have come to expect from the iconic US firm.

While there's loads that the iPhone 5 could have arrived with that would have helped it to stand out – rumours of fingerprint security spring to mind - my single biggest gripe about Apple's new mobile is that it didn't come with NFC. It could have had it and it should have had it. Hell, it kind of needed it, given that its main rivals, present and future – the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Nokia Lumia 920 – both feature it. Moreover, most high-end, new generation smartphones support the wireless feature: its conspicuous absence begs the question as to why the iPhone 5 hasn't come NFC-ready.

Unfortunately, the most logical explanation is a cynical one and points to a fairly rotten corporate ethos over in Cupertino. Given that an altered form factor is the iPhone 5's big marketing point, NFC support wasn't a particularly lucrative addition to the new mobile, not when it could be held back and sold with the 2013/14 incremental iPhone upgrade as somehow radically new. Rather than providing the best, most complete user experience as soon as possible, Apple knowingly came up short so it can make more money. It's fine by me, of course, because next year is when my current 4S contract expires. But for those anticipating an iPhone 5 chock-full of the latest features, it's a massive let down - and yet another reason for people to seriously consider the Galaxy S3.

Partly, the sense of disappointment is the fault of the device's own hype machine, with the iPhone 5 rumour mill predicting pretty everything that featured in the new iPhone and then some. Or perhaps Apple has just lost some its famous innovative impetus. Maybe, the impolite answer is closest to the truth and the firm is simply selling it ridiculously loyal fanbase short so it can make more cash in the long run. It's difficult to say for sure what Apple's thinking is, or what it could have done differently with its latest handset. Short of somehow packing passive 3D into the display, what could the unexpected killer feature actually have been? An iPad mini would have gone a long way to distracting from the iPhone 5's averageness, but there wasn't that either – nor was a 13in MacBook Pro with Retina.

As a result, there's a general consensus that any awe inspired by the iPhone 5 yesterday was solely the result of its normality. It was the finished version of what we already knew was coming and nothing more. There was no rabbit in the hat, no trick up the sleeve of Messrs Cook, Ive, or Schiller - just a pretty nice smartphone with a few neat features. It didn't suck, but nor did it dazzle. It was, to be unkind, a case study in mediocrity.

Whisper it softly, but the iPhone 5's underwhelming arrival may be a sign that the aura of invincibility that once surrounded Apple and all its endeavours is on the wane. Could the iconic US company actually be losing its Midas touch? Might the previously unassailable ivory tower of Cupertino be starting to crumble? The reality is that if Apple doesn't bring out something fairly spectacular before the end of the year, it's 2012 legacy will largely consist of suing the pants off of Samsung, rather than rolling out exciting new products. For once, the tech world is full of more questions than it has answers.