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The iPhone 5: It’s all about the ecosystem

Anyone who says the iPhone 5 is disappointing doesn't get it.

The iPhone 5 upgrades every part of the iPhone. Processor, camera, screen, even the build, getting rid of that crack-prone glass back. This phone is going to unleash all of the pent-up demand from iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4 owners who thought the 4S just wasn't enough of an upgrade for them to jump.

There aren't radical new technologies here, but there don't have to be. Apple's ecosystem isn't driven by the hardware. The hardware isn't why people buy iPhones. Yeah, sure, the hardware's nice, but so is my HTC One S.

People buy iPhones for the apps. The apps exist for iPhones because Apple's well-run app store and high-quality SDK help developers write great apps easily, deploy them to lots of devices without having to produce many versions, and get money for their work.

People buy iPhones for Apple's apps, too. Maybe it's iTunes. Much as the PC version of iTunes is lamented, the store has a terrific catalogue of music, videos and movies, built up over years, as well as a coherent, clear way to get them onto PCs, mobile phones, tablets and TVs.

Maybe it's iMessage, because their friends use iMessage. Maybe it's FaceTime, because mobile Skype doesn't work a lot of the time. Maybe it's just that Apple devices, with their simple interfaces, aren't intimidating.

Stability is a big deal. So is upgradeability – if you buy an Apple product, you know it'll get at least most of the new features for a year or two. Support's there, as well. Apple has a huge chain of retail stores with much more personable staff than the average operator sales outlet.

The Apple ecosystem isn't just about iPhones, either. It’s about the iPod Touch, which is popular among tweens. The iPod Touch has no major competitors (Samsung seems to refuse to market its Galaxy Player for unknown reasons). It's about the iPad, still the most popular tablet on the market. If you have one of these devices, it becomes much easier to own the others because you can move apps and content between them.

All these things together form an ecosystem. Buying an iPhone isn't just buying a piece of hardware. It's buying into an ecosystem. And it's on all these ecosystem points, rather than hardware specs, where the other major mobile players fall behind Apple.

The iPhone 5's one key feature

Let's not go overboard and say the hardware doesn't matter at all, though. Apple at least needs to keep up with the Joneses, and make its phones at least the equals of others on the market.

The most pressing reason the iPhone 5 needed to exist, though, was LTE. The U.S. is a critical market for Apple, and U.S. 3G networks are guttering as wireless carriers pour their energies into LTE. Carriers must have been begging Apple to take some of the pressure off their overburdened 3G networks and shift over to their largely empty 4G ones.

We'll probably soon hear the same song from carriers in other countries, but for now the desperate demand to move users over to LTE is largely a U.S. thing. To keep a decent quality of Internet experience on the likes of AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, Apple needed to upgrade the radio in the iPhone.

Other hardware upgrades follow industry trends – but that's good. Apple doesn't need to lead on everything. The new phone has a dual Cortex-A15 processor, similar to the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 line. It has a larger screen that puts it in the 4 to 4.3in range where most popular phones have been living for a while. Even panorama mode has been a recent popular trend.

The hardware's really nice. But the hardware takes second place here, and maybe it always will. To understand the appeal of the iPhone, you must understand that it's all about the iOS ecosystem. And together, the iPhone and its brother the new iPod Touch – the phone-without-a-phone – are keeping that ecosystem humming along just fine.

For more on the iPhone 5, you can check out our live blog of this week’s big launch, or you can browse some of our head-to-head spec comparisons – with the Nokia Lumia 920, Samsung Galaxy S III, or Galaxy Note 2.