Preview: This Year's iPhones
Wednesday, Sep 21, 2011
Apple's rapidly heading toward the announcement of the next generation of iPhone, with the smart money riding on an October 4th announcement. As has become tradition, I've stirred together the various rumors out there with my own educated guesses and cooked up my predictions for what we'll be seeing from Apple in the iOS realm next month. As always, this is a work of speculation and does in no way represent leaked or privileged information. I never ask my friends at Apple about what they're working on, and I'm certain they wouldn't tell me anything if I did. So what will we see coming out of Tim Cook's pocket a week from Tuesday? The iPhone 4s, iPhone 5, and an update to the iPod Touch.

iPhone 4s

This will be the entry-level iPhone. Unlike the current low-price iPhone 3Gs, this time around Apple won't simply discount last year's model and call it the budget option. Android has seen huge adoption in the last 18 months and, thanks to having many competing OEMS, Android phones come in a wide range of price points. It's no longer reasonable to tell budget-minded customers to buy a phone that's over two years old, (which the iPhone 4 would be before the subsequent iPhone product cycle) so even though the iPhone 4s will be a refresh of the current iPhone 4, it will differ in a few important ways:
  • CDMA+GSM - Simplifying the product line, the 4s will come in one flavor world-wide. Now that the universal chipset has matured, the premium for supporting both standards has dropped a great deal, and comes with the benefit of simplifying supply chains.
  • A5 Processor - With nearly double the processing power of the iPhone 4's A4 processor, adding an A5 to the iPhone 4s would mean every iOS device Apple sells will be running on the same chip (AppleTV notwithstanding). It's vital that both the high and low-end iPhones run the same processor because developers need to be optimizing for as few platforms as possible. One of the iPhone's key advantages over Android is that the user can expect an optimized level of performance when running an application. Android developers have a much harder time creating a seamless experience when they don't know if they'll be running on a powerhouse processor or a weakling, with dedicated graphics hardware or without. If the iPhone 4s kept the A4 processor while the higher end iPhone 5 had a processor that was twice as fast, we would inevitably see developers including some processor-intensive features that would be 'iPhone 5 only'. This is antithetical to the Apple's design philosophy, and though there will always be older devices that eventually show their age, Apple's not going to simultaneously sell a 'fast phone' and a 'slow phone' now that they've widened the development cycle to iterate both lines in tandem.
  • Same storage options - Flash memory is expensive, and iCloud should reduce memory needs enough that 16/32 gig options won't be any kind of hardship.
  • Not much else different - By keeping changes to a minimum, Apple's keeping development costs low, and most of the processes and parts developed for the iPhone 4's fabrication will continue to be used cheaply, now that the expense of designing them has been amortized away with last year's iPhone 4 sales. The same logic has recently been applied at Boeing, where after much deliberation they decided to re-engine the venerable 737 rather than design a replacement plane from scratch. Re-engining only costs 15% of the R&D that a clean sheet redesign would cost, freeing up expense and resources. Airplanes are different than smartphones (hmm… carbon fiber iPhone…) but the general principle still applies. If Apple is going to start making two levels of phones that it iterates in tandem, only one can be a significant redesign.
This paves the way for development of a new front-runner…

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 will be positioned as a 'no compromises' device, with a higher price tag in order to give premium components to people willing to pay for them. So what's in an iPhone 5? Let's see:
  • The new iPhone 4s stuff - An A5 processor is a given, and CDMA+GSM very likely.
  • Sleeker, brushed aluminum form factor - Think of the Macbook Air's design aesthetic applied to an iPhone. An aluminum back, flat in the middle and rounded/tapered at the sides similarly to the iPad 2. I wouldn't be surprised if the back uses the same milled aluminum process used for unibody Macs. Like the original iPhone and 3G iPads, a portion of the back will not be metal to accommodate internal antenna reception. I'm guessing it's at the top of the phone, but it's anyone's guess. It's conceivable they found a way to provide reception through the front glass, leaving the back a solid piece of aluminum, but that's pure speculation.
  • A larger screen with the same number of pixels - The leaked parts and rumors are too strong to conclude anything other than that the iPhone 5 will have a larger screen with a very thin bezel on the sides. The screen can get 18% larger while staying above 300 DPI, retaining its 'Retina Display' designation by Apple's own metric. It won't be that big, but it will be noticeably bigger, both in absolute terms and relative to the phone. The phone will likely be a bit wider to accommodate the display, which may mean they can opt for a flatter, wider battery to keep the phone thinner than the iPhone 4. The display will absolutely be the standard 960x640 pixels.
  • 8MP camera in the back - Widely rumored, and seems highly likely.
  • FaceTime HD camera in the front - Current front-facing cameras are still 640x480, just like the old iSight cameras in MacBooks, iMacs and Cinema Displays. This year Apple started upgrading the iSight cameras to FaceTime HD cameras, which bump the resolution up to 720p (1280x720). I wouldn't be too surprised if they opted to put such a camera in to the iPhone 5, considering it's the flagship device for FaceTime.
Lest we forget…

iPod Touch

While some have speculated that the Touch may fade away, being replaced by a contract-free iPhone 4, I sincerely doubt this is the case. The iPod Touch is much thinner, cheaper to manufacture, and, let's face it, sturdier than the iPhone 4. A lot more parents would give a Touch to their kids than an iPhone 4, because it fits better in their hands and it knows how to take a spill without cracking. I think we'll see a bump in the Touch, but nothing breathtaking. Something like this:
  • The iPhone 4's rear-facing camera - The iPod Touch's current camera is an embarrassment. Low resolution, low quality, a clear compromise to fit into the Touch's extremely slim case. My guess is that either the last 18 months have brought down the size of a quality 5MP camera, or Apple will make the Touch just thick enough to accommodate it.
  • Retina Display - Probably. It already has one. My bad.
  • WiFi+3G model - Operating in exactly the same way as the iPad 3G, an iPod Touch WiFi+3G would be sold without contracts, with negotiated cheap monthly packages from the major carriers. It's not a phone, but 3G would let you rely on the Touch as a primary internet device when out and about.

Loose ends

There are still a few open questions:
  • NFC chips - Only a few Android phones currently have NFC chips to support a true digital wallet, but with their faster product cycles and the huge resources Google is putting into the Google Wallet initiative, you can bet that most Android phones sold in 2012 will have NFC built in. NFC as a payment method is already very popular in Europe and Asia, and I find it hard to believe that Apple would go until late 2012 (or early 2013) before they start offering an iPhone that supports NFC. Considering that Apple has bragged about having one of the largest credit card payment databases in the world, they're clearly very interested in this space. If they do introduce devices with NFC chips this time around, I would guess it will be in both the iPhone 5 and the iPhone 4s, but not the Touch.
  • LTE - I'm going to have to go with a big 'no' on LTE this year. LTE is still only available in limited areas, and Android phones that support it have abysmal battery life while using it. Also, download speed has rarely been a real-world problem for iPhone users, certainly not a big enough issue to cut into battery life, an issue that Apple puts a heavy priority on.
  • Release date - Friday, October 14th. The sooner the better, and 10 days is just about as short as Apple can stand between the beginning of an iPhone press cycle and the peak of fervor that's so important for a successful launch. And as Apple has shown, they like to launch on a Friday, when people can spend the weekend waiting in lines.

One more thing...

What will it be? Possibly nothing. Definitely not the iPad 3. Certainly much of the presentation will be the public release of iOS 5 and iCloud. There's a good chance there's a new app or two that will be rolled in to iOS 5 at the last minute. I'll be watching along with the rest of you in a couple weeks, but I feel pretty comfortable with these predictions. More so than usual.
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Hi, I'm Kevin Fox.
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