What exactly is happening with Apple's next iPhone? Will it be substantially cheaper? Come in gold? Or even sport a fingerprint scanner? And will it be enough to keep Apple on top, now that it's up against two software-hardware chimeras? The company's making plans for next week and we're likely to see not one, but two new iPhones revealed. Alongside a predictably retuned iPhone 5 (the 5S?), we might see the long-awaited appearance of a new, cheaper model, rumored to arrive under the 5C moniker.
Tim Cook has yet to make his mark on the company product-wise -- regardless of Apple's continued financial health. Steve Jobs was apparently well-involved in the development of the iPhone 5, even if it launched on Cook's watch, so a freshly designed phone or two could finally be his launch: a chance to silence critics and show them where he's taking Apple.
What's next for the iPhone? Well, most leaks, rumors and common sense all point to an incremental step up. The iPhone 5S, if we're to believe the parts that are appearing in Asia, will look pretty similar to its predecessor -- similar chamfered edges, light, slim and using a mixture of metal and glass. We say pretty similar, because there's likely to be one difference: a new shade. Not white or black -- though we've spotted both -- but a classy champagne gold finish.
Many laughed down the first leaks ("A gold iPhone?!"), but the last few weeks have been filled with waves of gold-tinged iPhone casings and AllThingsD's reliable sources say that the new color is going to happen. So why the new option, aside from making it easier to tell it apart from the older model? Some say it could be to strengthen Apple's pitch to customers in China, where the phone maker is hungry to make a bigger impression. Would a gold finish really be such a huge deal? Editor-in-chief of our sister site Engadget Chinese, Richard Lai, explains:
"The 'Chinese people like gold' thing is overhyped. They like real gold because it's seen as a safe investment. The champagne gold-colored iPhone is likely to still cost the same as the others -- it looks like it's just a color, not a change in material."
Regardless of the company's motivations, it's clear that it's courting the Chinese market more than ever before. The launch also marks Apple's first Sino-based event.
The S stands for something
So what will the S stand for? If the 3GS was "speed," and the 4S was "Siri," what, exactly, will the 5S be? Well, it could be speed, again. Jamie Ryan, who once worked at Apple in its developer relations division, reckons so, and it could mean more than an incrementally faster chipset. He's heard whispers of a new slow-motion video capture mode, something that 9to5Mac has backed up with hidden code spotted inside the developer version of iOS 7. The apparently titled "Mogul" mode would capture video at around 120 fps (the Galaxy S 4 is already capable of a similar feat), and open up the possibility of slow-motion capture and otherwise silky-smooth video clips.
So what will the S stand for? If the 3GS was "speed," and the 4S was "Siri," what, exactly, will the 5S be?
While current hardware can't run it yet, Apple's had a history of adding camera features this way. iOS 5's panorama capture mode appeared long before the feature was officially enabled. That's likely not all that's going to change with the camera, as the same iPhone shells that revealed that classy new metallic tone also showed off an expanded LED flash -- enough space for what could be a dual flash. The same leak revealed an incrementally larger battery too. When he takes to the stage next week, however, Cook is unlikely to heavily push the camera's technical credentials, regardless of what its competition is up to, and we haven't heard any talk of high pixel-count camera sensors from those all-important component suppliers. Another place Apple could possibly up its camera game is low-light performance, and OIS (optical image stabilization) -- already a proven feature in a number of competing handsets -- could be the means to that end.
Speed could well mean another new (possibly Samsung-made) processor for the Apple smartphone -- backed up with DDR3 RAM (up from DDR2 in older models). KGI Securities' Ming-Chi Kuo reckons that will be what powers the new device. It's a safe bet that Apple will continue incremental performance updates to internal components, but its habit of focusing on what the new device does and feels like will take precedence over precise specs. Expect to learn about those once the tech world gets to dig into the device in earnest.
It's a stretch, but speed could also mean that Apple will reveal a new device that's primed for LTE-Advanced -- the next stage of 4G. The Korea Times reported that Cupertino is discussing the possibility of getting the new tech inside its smartphones with Korean carriers. The iPhone series was late to the LTE party, so Cook et al. may be looking to be part of that first wave of devices. It could certainly help in places like Korea, where LTE-Advanced handsets are already in the pipeline. Of course, Apple could, and likely will, wait for others to prove that standard first.
After numerous patent applications and the purchase of security firm Authentec, there are murmurs that a fingerprint sensor could eventually land in an Apple product.
How about something a little less obvious? After numerous patent applications and the purchase of security firm Authentec, there are murmurs that a fingerprint sensor could eventually land in an Apple product, despite sounding more out there than the company adding NFC to its next phone. According to 9to5Mac (and KGI Securities analyst Kuo again), the button might even be convex, protruding out from below the iPhone's touchscreen.
Kuo adds that in this more exposed position, Apple would likely switch materials, using Sapphire glass instead of plastic on the new button. In recent days, serial parts-leaker Sonny Dickson said he's found the new home button component, housing both different sensors and flex compared to previous iPhone keys. It could give the new model a unique twist, especially if security features are tied into what we've already seen teased within iOS 7 -- fingerprint-enabled access to your iCloud keychain? Maybe.
The C is for color
Interestingly, that's only half of the rumor mill's output. Take another look at the invite: there's a lot of color going on there. So how about a kaleidoscope of new, cheaper iPhones? The phone could sit below the iPhone 5S, arriving in a spectrum of colors like we've seen on iPods in the past. This would offer a greater degree of individuality, without the need for an additional case, and add a new lightness and levity to Apple's smartphone family -- something that would pair well with the brighter, more vivid iOS 7. According to multiple leaks, the iPhone 5C will likely land in a rainbow of options, but keep roughly the same dimensions and screen size. We've already seen blue, red, yellow, green and white shells, but we'll have to see which colors make the cut. Both the blue and red options have been spied, apparently in ready-for-shelves packaging.
So how about a kaleidoscope of new, cheaper iPhones?
Cook, then Apple COO, first talked about the notion of a cheaper Apple smartphone back in 2011. Then, more recently, the idea suddenly returned to the table (via some Digitimes seasoning) with a possible arrival window of late 2013 -- ideal for a September reveal, then, surely? The first leak appeared back in April, with a white polycarbonate shell for a new iPhone, but we could chalk that up to overzealous Shenzhen designers. Then we saw it in a video, then mentioned in passing within a China Labor Watch report. Suddenly, it seemed like it could be a very real thing.
It would likely be a lucrative move for Apple, with Windows Phone and Android devices currently dominating the market in developing countries, where millions of potential customers are shopping for their first smartphones. Samsung, according to Strategy Analytics, topped smartphone market share for China at the start of 2013, ahead of both Apple and native competition like Huawei and Lenovo. Meanwhile, both Windows Phone and Android have been available on sub-$300 hardware for a while. Could the iPhone go that low? By simply offering a cheaper option, it would claim plenty of new customers -- Fortune reports that the effect could be massive. But the impact of the 5C will be in proportion to its price -- of which we've heard absolutely nothing.
It's not all multi-colored smartphones. It's unlikely Apple is going to keep the event wholly focused on iPhone hardware. Following events and timelines for past iterations, we expect Cupertino to give iOS 7 a concrete launch date (likely the same as these new phones), and we'd love to hear the same for Mavericks and the redesigned Mac Pros. As with any Apple event, the world will be watching, whether the company releases a new iPhone or a pet rock. Cook has something to prove, and next week is his chance. The iPhone is undoubtedly Apple's star product and the company became a dominant force in mobile under Jobs, but as it starts to exhaust potential customers in the high-end segment, it's time for something different, with a different CEO.