We're on the cusp of Apple's sixth iPhone launch, and there's very different expectations than there were last year. The 2011 rumor cycle left more than a few people burned: the later-than-usual October launch and repeated claims of a heavily-remade design led some to a disappointment when the iPhone 4S arrived, even though the final product had a slew of camera, speed and voice command upgrades. This year, the rumors have been grounded well before there was an event date in our hands.
There have been fewer instances of wild rumors. Instead, it's been based more around pragmatism, using either tangible leaks or sources that have a solid track record. Think of the perennial leaks from the Wall Street Journal or the increasingly well-established sourcing from iMore and The Loop. Whether you're conspiracy-minded or not, it's been hard to ignore the sheer number of claims that have tamped down expectations rather than inflated them. It's as though there's a collective fear we'll see a repeat of the 2011 hysteria and deal with fans (or detractors) complaining about missing features that were never promised in the first place.
Where last summer was full of uncertainty, this year there's a mounting consensus as to what we'll see, how we'll get it, and when. Tracking everything that's been mentioned may be a handful, however. With that in mind, we'll dive in and gauge what's likely to emerge from behind Apple's curtain on September 12th -- as well as what we can rule out from the get-go.
Name: just how minimalist does Apple want to be?
Another year, another iPhone naming controversy. Apple's decision to refer to the 2012 iPad update as just the new iPad has raised suspicions that the crew in Cupertino might just call its next smartphone "the new iPhone" and leave it at that. It's still plausible, but the conspicuous "5" shadow in Apple's event invitation has thrown a monkey wrench into the equation -- will the next model be called the iPhone 5? It depends on just how simplified Apple would like its line to be, although there's reason to think Apple is willing to be more verbose than with its tablet. Unlike the iPad line, where there's never been more than one current device and one hand-me-down ancestor, Apple has been juggling three iPhones at once. Having to sell "the new iPhone" alongside the iPhone 4 and 4S carries a risk of complicating the lineup where "iPhone 5" could make it all neat and tidy.
Hardware: a big break, a familiar tune
The one constant of the iPhone for its five-year history has been the screen size. From the beginning, every iPhone ever made has had a 3.5-inch display. While that has done wonders for consistency and pocketability, it's also been a growing liability: what was once huge is now tiny in an era where even mainstream phones are bordering on gargantuan. Thankfully, one of the most evidence-laden rumors suggests Apple will buck its tradition and go with a taller screen. The most common belief is that Apple will rely on a roughly 4- or 4.1-inch, 1,136 x 640 display that would run legacy titles at their native resolution while supplying more space for the home screen, media and optimized apps. There's also been talk of Apple using a thinner, better panel that would likely use in-cell touch rather than stack the LCD and touch surfaces in separate layers. Some pinpoint LG Display as the screen architect in the wake of initial supply troubles at Sharp, although it's hard to know given the secrecy surrounding Apple suppliers, even after new products are shipping.
Let's not forget the new dock connector while we're on the subject of breaking traditions. As long as what we've seen is real, the new iPhone will represent the first time Apple has tinkered significantly with its docking port since 2003, which might as well be an eon ago in the technology world. It might do more than help Apple strive towards its goals of ever thinner devices -- there's been unconfirmed rumors of an easy, orientation-independent design and faster speeds. Regardless of what the connector can do, there's increasing odds that a legion of accessories will be rendered obsolete overnight. We're hoping that murmurs of cheap adapters for older accessories are true.
If the screen isn't big enough by itself, there's a very distinct possibility we'll finally see LTE in the iPhone. Nothing's confirmed, but the writing on the wall has been too large to ignore. Never mind LTE in the 2012 iPad. We've seen AT&T, Sprint and Verizon publicly swear off releasing new smartphones that don't include LTE; Apple may not have much of a choice. At least there's indications that the wait will have been worthwhile. If we're to believe tips, the next iPhone will have global LTE that, by definition, requires a newer chipset than what we saw in the iPad and most anything else on the market. It's unlikely that we'll see 4G on every carrier, but the expanded support may echo the Nokia Lumia 920 in covering a sufficiently wide swath of the world with faster speeds. The US is a lock for any LTE, and we wouldn't be surprised to see Canada, South Korea and other key countries on the speedier data path. More importantly, the chipset could be miserly enough to let Apple keep its thin design while mustering reasonable battery life. CEO Tim Cook has sworn Apple won't make compromises for LTE, and we can't imagine that he would go back on his word after waiting this long. Just be prepared to hunt down a new nano-SIM card.
In spite of all this new technology, there's already some worry that the new iPhone might be ho-hum precisely for what hasn't changed -- from what we can tell through numerous shell leaks, the next iPhone may appear eerily similar to what we already know. Most of the changes could come from a partly metal (and more durable) metal back as well as a thinner, 0.3-inch thick body. We wouldn't necessarily dismiss the design ourselves, mind you. That Dieter Rams-inspired look is still considered iconic in some circles, and Apple has often touted the steel outside antenna band as a selling point that it's unlikely to drop all that quickly.
Uncertainties: chips, cameras and software
As much as we might think we know about the next iPhone, the processor could well be its biggest riddle. At best, we've only seen the briefest mentions of a possible S5L8950X chip. Apple's recent history of introducing a new chip with every iPad and optimizing it for the iPhone would suggest a power-optimized version of the A5X from the iPad, and that's roughly the minimum we'd plan to see. Still, the switch to smaller chipmaking processes opens up a slew of options that could include higher clock speeds or four cores without as much of a hit to battery life. There's also a slim chance of encountering ARM's next-generation Cortex-A15, which could theoretically be on the streets before the end of 2012. We're not counting on the A15 ourselves -- there's a lot challenges behind producing a cutting-edge processor on the massive scale that Apple demands.
It only gets more nebulous from there. We've heard no mention at all of changes to the cameras, storage, WiFi and other components that often get tuneups with each update. Apple just isn't in as much of a rush to upgrade the camera this year: most rivals are still using 8-megapixel sensors that, as good as they are, won't trigger regret among iPhone 4S owners. Likewise, Apple may not feel the need to start with more than 16GB of storage at the base, and there's no mobile 802.11ac WiFi chips lurking about.
Software is a safer bet. We've seen iOS 6, so there's little mystery on a core level. What we haven't seen is any special features that might be reserved for Apple's latest and greatest. The company tends to keep certain features secret right up to the last minute, whether it's the iPhone 3GS' compass in 2009 or the iPhone 4S' Siri voice commands last year. We're not bracing for a makeover, but we do know Apple loves its surprises.
Doubtfuls: NFC and T-Mobile
Despite all the seeming likelihoods for the 2012 iPhone update, there's a few elements that are improbable at best. True, Apple has regularly teased us with patents for NFC in the iPhone, and made the speculation all the worse with a Passbook feature in iOS 6 that seems tailor-made for mobile payments -- but in practice, there's no signs that our dreams of a tap-to-pay iPhone are about to come true. Part leaks we've seen don't have any smoking gun NFC elements, and Apple likely can't use NFC given its other design choices. Proper NFC antennas require an uninterrupted signal on the back of the phone, and the metal construction we've seen so far would produce too weak a signal.
By the same token, we'd downplay hopes of an official iPhone deal for T-Mobile USA in the immediate future. The carrier is emphasizing unlocked iPhones just a little too strongly to have an official agreement lurking in the background. Its network just isn't ready, for that matter. T-Mobile has been refarming 3G spectrum to get those iPhones humming on HSPA+, but its coverage is inconsistent and isn't matched with an LTE deployment like at the other three big networks. For now, it's more probable that AT&T, Sprint and Verizon will remain the primary choices in the US.
Release date: where and when?
It's the big question, really. Apple has been developing a trend of fast turnarounds between announcement and launch of its iOS devices that has the product ship on Friday the next week, which would make the in-store date the same September 21st that we've heard before. Barring a delay, there's not much mystery left for at least the US, and we'd anticipate at least a few other nations joining the initial launch. About the only wildcard left is the second wave; there's been talk at iMore of Apple once again waiting two weeks to expand its reach to more countries, this time on October 5th. Accurate or not, we don't expect Apple to stray very far from the familiar script. The company has had five years to practice, and its new iPhone introductions are very nearly down to an artform.