Meet the new iPhone. Same as the old iPhone.

Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel conducted a remarkable experiment this past week. He sent cameras out to record people testing the new iPhone 5, which of course is not available yet. The lab rats were handed last year’s model.

“Oh, it’s way better,” one man said, holding the iPhone 4S. “Yeah, it’s nice. That’s definitely, noticeably better.”

Another mark: “It seems a little bit faster.”

“Oh my God, it feels a lot lighter,” according to a different reviewer. “Just a lot more higher quality.”

Yet another: “Colors are brighter.”

The joke was obvious: People can’t tell the difference between a new ­iPhone and an old iPhone. But underlying the gag is a more serious message about where we stand in the digital age, particularly with the era’s marquee device, which has become an appendage for hundreds of millions of people.

Farewell, innovation. Hello, iteration.

In the olden days of gadgetry — by which I mean 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone — differences between devices from year to year could be so dramatic that buyers would often skip generations, hopeful that the next one would offer an even greater technological leap. Perhaps version 2.0 or 3.0 would remotely take out the trash.

The difference between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 4 was huge, the most notable addition a thin, gorgeous retina display. The sun appeared brighter. The moon, too. But the distinction between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S? Not much. And now the iPhone 5, a device many had been holding out for, is so similar to the iPhone 4 that people on the street can’t tell the difference.

The phone is a little thinner. Its screen is a little bigger, its battery life a little longer, its download speeds a little faster. It’s sort of like a high school athlete: a little taller each year, a little quicker, but the same basic package.

Yet this is a moment in tech as big as the iPhone’s invention.

Apple has grabbed the low-hanging fruit, settling on the essence of a design that will become as familiar as a rotary dial. The differences in future versions will become less and less appreciable. The phone itself, smarter analysts say, will become secondary to the ecosystem it connects to, and the major advances going forward will be about how the phone fits into a customer’s larger digital life.

“The future is all about the user experience through the device and not about the specs,” Forrester Research analyst Thomas Husson told me.

Apple has been setting up this transition for years, most notably with iCloud, which syncs and stores data, allowing multiple devices to use it. Jobs knew iCloud was so important to Apple’s future that, looking frail and gaunt, he summoned the energy to step on stage one last time to introduce the service last year, four months before he died.

We will also see, according to Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, more uses for the phone’s sensors. IPhones and accessories will tell us about our health (glucose levels and blood pressure, for example) and, knowing our location, will make us instantly educated shoppers, eaters and parking-space-finders. Expect newer iPhones to have the ability to control everything in our houses, even the dishwasher.

“The next phase of computing won’t be a battle for our pockets (as this one has been),” Epps wrote recently in a blog post, “but for our sensor-laden bodies and the environments we inhabit.”

Acclimating to this future — focusing on the digital ecosystem,playing down the device — might not be easy, especially for consumers and the gadget press corps coveting new, now, awesome, I want it, I need it, I have to have it phones. Early coverage of the new ­iPhone frequently used the word “boring.” Not long after it was introduced, this headline appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s Web site: “Is Apple’s iPhone 5 Boring?” Wired announced: “The iPhone 5 Is Completely Amazing and Utterly Boring.”

And Mashable, the hourly bible of our digital times, had this headline: “Apple, It’s Time to Make Something New.” The site wants the company to be astonishing again, like it was when it first introduced the iPhone — to build something on par with Google’s Project Glass, which will allow users to see a Google-overlaid world through lenses.

“The world’s most valuable company has chosen to play it very safe indeed,” the site said, “throwing all its engineering know-how into microscopic levels of innovation in a handful of hardware products.”

But Mashable also acknowledges that the iPhone 5 “seems certain to become the world’s bestselling smartphone.”

That’s because Apple is more than just a maker of gadgets. “In a secular age,” I wrote in these pages after Jobs died, “Apple has become a religion, and Steve Jobs was its high priest.” People buy Apple products because they are easy to use and beautifully designed, but the company’s shrewd marketing has also made people believe — rightly or wrongly — that using its products can improve humanity.

That probably helps explain why Apple sold a record number of iPhones in 2011, when people said that last year’s model was hardly different. That’s probably why it will happen again this year, with another model a lot like the one before.

Apple fans seem willing to embrace iteration — for now, at least. After all, Apple sold out its supply of iPhone 5 pre-orders for launch day deliveryin an hour. Lines next Friday on release day will be long. And I’ll be standing there.

rosenwaldm@washpost.com

Michael S. Rosenwald is a reporter for the Washington Post. Visit his blog, Rosenwald, Md., at washingtonpost.com/blogs/rosenwald-md .

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Michael Rosenwald is a reporter on the Post?s local enterprise team. He writes about the intersection of technology, business and culture.
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