There’s lots of speculation about what Apple will announce at their event next week, and very little actual information has been leaked. This makes for an ideal climate to speculate about what will and won’t be announced at the event. So that’s what I’m going to do.
I never liked the name “3Gs”. “The ‘s’ stands for ‘speed'” we were told at the presentation. Yeah, whatever. It reminds of the kind of name given to one of the endless sea of Android devices, the Samsung Galaxy II S Touch Turbo Lightning or whatever. So why did Apple pick it? The answer is pretty obvious: they couldn’t go with “iPhone 3” because that would be too confusing next to the “iPhone 3G”. And there was no flagship feature that would have made sense either – the “iPhone Compass” or “iPhone Voice Control” would have been even more dumb. So they had to go with “iPhone 3Gs”.
This time, though, there is no such problem. No matter what they come out with, they can easily call it the “iPhone 5”. Over the past year Apple has demonstrated that incrementing the version number is the approach they want to take (“iPhone 4”, “iPad 2”), and I see no reason why they wouldn’t continue, unless it was again to highlight a breakthrough feature of the device. Like if it had a 3D screen they’d call it the “iPhone 3D” or something like that.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Mark my words, there will be a product called the “iPhone 5” launched on Tuesday.
And then there were two
However, the rumor mill has, for several months, been mulling over the idea that there will be not one but two iPhones announced at the event, a new high-end model and another low-end model. This idea definitely does have some points going for it – Apple is the only phone manufacturer that creates just a single new device (Verizon iPhone notwithstanding) per year, and many analysts have argued that in order for Apple to maintain growth they need to diversify their offerings a bit.
As to whether or not Apple will do this I can’t say, there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. On one hand, it’s much simpler from a manufacturing standpoint to produce a single phone, albeit with various options (GSM or Verizon, black or white, 16GB or 32GB, etc). On the other hand, I think that it would also make a lot of sense for Apple to perform some under-the-hood upgrades to the iPhone 4 to create a more competitive low-end model next to the new iPhone 5. All the outward facing parts would remain the same, you’d just swap the A4 for an A5, maybe bump up the RAM, and use those Qualcomm chips that can make it work on either GSM or Verizon. Because a significant portion of the phone will remain unchanged, Apple won’t have to spend the money to create a new manufacturing process for those components and will save money, even if the per-unit price ends up being slightly higher. This is consistent with the fact that Apple released several mid-cycle updates to the iPhone 4; namely, the white coloring and the Verizon compatibility. I doubt that just 5 months on sale Apple is keen on discontinuing the iPhone 4 or consigning it to a bargain basement.
In terms of pricing, I honestly really don’t think that Apple will sell this phone for significantly less than they have historically. The $99/$49 on-contract price point has proven to be quite effective and I doubt that they’ll switch to an affordably priced (sub-$300) unlocked version any time soon.
Now that I’ve danced around the idea of a new low-end model, I’d like to get to the real meat of the event: the iPhone 5.
There are lots of rumors floating about regarding the form factor of the iPhone 5, based on secondhand information, speculation, and some case that someone’s cousin saw in a street market in China.
Case & Size
A few months ago This Is My Next posted a mockup, seen on the left. I realize it’s an artist’s rendering, but if that’s what the next iPhone looks like the design department needs to be fired. The “teardrop” taper looks terrible, the black areas above and below the screen aren’t even, and the screen is too close to the edge.
Some of the aforementioned cases have found there way into the hands of enthusiastic bloggers and journalists, who have promptly taken to comparing them with the size of the iPhone 4 and have found that the cases are for a larger device.
While it is true that the iPhone’s 3.5″ screen, while industry-leading at the time of its introduction in 2007, nevertheless starts to feel cramped once you use a device with a slightly larger display and switch back to the iPhone. However, increasing the physical size of the display leaves Apple with a problem: if they keep the resolution the same, the tap targets designed for a 3.5″ screen will be too large, and potentially awkward to use. Likewise if they increase the resolution to match there will then be a fourth resolution developers must code for. As I think that the latter is highly unlikely, especially considering the 960×640 resolution screen on the current iPhone 4 is still the highest resolution phone you can buy, I think that if Apple is going to change the size of the screen, they’ll stick with 960×640. But they can’t increase it too much – they could probably get away with 3.7″, but 4″ would be pushing it.
And to accommodate the larger screen, especially since it’s virtually certain they will retain the same aspect ratio, the phone must get inevitably wider to accommodate it. Such increases in width would make the phone harder to pocket, and harder to hold for those with smaller hands. If the iPhone 5 is wider than the iPhone 4, I’d say it’s dead near certain Apple will sell an alternative that’s around the existing width. And when I say “alternative” I don’t mean whatever iPhone 4 devices they happen to have left in stock at a discounted price, I mean a device that can give the larger iPhone 5 a run for its money.
It goes against the available evidence (which, admittedly, is mounting), but it strikes me that a 4″ device would sell much better as an iPod touch than an iPhone. I wouldn’t be surprised if the leaked cases we keep seeing are for the next iPod touch. Especially since some of the photos taken from case manufacturer websites show a metal-backed device in the case. Unless Apple has gotten really, really good at antennas (and really, really daring, especially after last year) I don’t see them making a phone with a metal back. It worked on the original iPhone because they had a strip of plastic on the bottom and it was 2G only – it was demonstrated repeatedly last year that hands are quite effective at blocking 3G signals.
One of the problems that Apple’s facing is that their existing products, especially the iPhone 4, are already so good that if you asked someone what they’d like the next iPhone to have they wouldn’t be able to really tell you. Faster, maybe, although the iPhone 4 is already quite fast. Better camera, sure, though my iPhone 4 takes great pictures and brilliant video. So what then?
One thing that’s been brought out recently as a possibility is voice input/control, especially given the “Let’s talk iPhone” wording on the invitation to the event. The only problem: it’s boring. Sure you get that “I’m living in the future” feeling for about 5 minutes, but voice is actually one of the least efficient ways to interact with your device – very often it’s faster to just do something or type something myself than it is to activate a voice control thing, speak what I want, and hope it understands. I pretty much only use the Google voice search when I’m driving and physically can’t type. Yawn. Its boring.
Another possibility would be some sort of NFC integration. Google is already hard at work deploying NFC, except that it only works with retailers in NYC or SF, and only if you have a Nexus S 4G on Sprint. But they’re really hard at work deploying it for the tens of people that meet those criteria. Apple, however, doesn’t need to work with a single carrier – they already have one of the largest stores with people used to making purchases and having them billed to their credit card. If Apple built in some NFC that billed your Apple account, they would have millions of potential users on day one. Would Apple do this? I think the appropriate question to ask is when will Apple do this. I see NFC taking off in a big way and Apple will need to get on board at some point. This year might be a little early, as they usually like to let other companies try the waters first, but they could certainly do it. NFC also has other applications than just payment –
they could expose the NFC to app developers and a whole range of apps could be developed where you could be alerted if someone that likes to play Words With Friends is nearby, for example. Could be interesting. (I must have been thinking of a different wireless standard, I’ve since been told that NFC very nearly requires physical contact.)
The iPhone 5 is likely to have the dual-core A5 chip that’s in the current iPad. This processing power, in addition to making the voice recognition possible, can be wielded in other interesting ways. This is a bit out there, but they’re certainly to the point where you could display a nice little weather animation for the weather app icon, the clock icon could show you the time, the map could show you where you are, etc. There are good reasons why they wouldn’t do it, but they certainly would have the CPU power to try.
In all honesty, however, I’m completely shooting in the dark here. I certainly hope that Apple has some grand new innovative features to grace us with, but I’m prepared for an underwhelming presentation.
Same as now, $199. Any less and Apple would leave money on the table, and it’s important psychologically to be under $200.
Despite the invitation to “talk iPhone” I suspect that we will also get a few iPod updates as well at the event, as Apple has historically held an event in September to update their iPod lineup.
Once again, the rumor mill has been busy speculating that the low-end unlocked iPhone (if, indeed, it materializes) will be one and the same with the iPod touch. This has a certain appeal – it would enable Apple to bolster the number of “iPhones” sold. I tend to doubt this for the reasons mentioned earlier – that Apple would just leave too much money on the table to sell this at the price point they need to to market it as an iPod.
Other speculation has suggested that there may be a version of the iPod touch that supports cellular data. I think that this is slightly more plausible, but again I think that in order to support the cellular chips the device would be more expensive and more battery-hungry, meaning that they can’t really make it as thin as they like to make the touch line. I’m not going to discount this, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Instead, as I said earlier, it’s also possible that the 4″ screened device that we keep hearing about is not the new iPhone but the new iPod touch. It’s going to be super thin, have a better processor, screen, camera, and might even sport a slightly lower price – $199 or $179 to start. And they’re going to positively fly off the shelves.
People have been saying that Apple is planning on killing this off. I’m wondering what’s taking them so long – this product is a veritable dinosaur in the lineup, and it’s fitting that the same year they scrap the plastic MacBook they kill off this device as well.
“But what about my 135GB music collection?” I can hear precisely nine people cry in dismay. Sorry, Apple’s moved on. Keep using your classic for as long as you can, and chances are by the time you need to replace it there will be an iPod touch with as much, if not more, storage capacity.
This device has always been notoriously hard to predict, because the changes Apple makes to it come out of nowhere, and they’ve been known to reverse course when a particular change proves to be unpopular, like the horizontal screened version. I honestly have no idea whether the diminutive touch screen has taken off or not. If not, it’s possible they could backslide into the old control wheel.
If it has, which I think is likely, then I’d expect to see some iterative improvements. They may add back the camera, add a retina display, or even change the underlying operating system to be based off of iOS. I wouldn’t hold my breath on that though. One final thing that comes to mind is they could address the shortcomings of wearing it as a watch (battery life, not constantly on) and ship some first-party watch bands. Just a passing thought.
As long as these keep selling, and I think that they do, Apple will keep making them. They’ve exhausted what they can do with the form factor so I doubt we’ll see any changes here.
There will be no Mac or iPad announcements. iCloud will be released with no unannounced features. There will be a new version of iTunes, and hopefully they’ll drop Ping like yesterday’s crusty old donuts that no one wanted and have been left out overnight. I’d love it if they’d break apart the syncing/media playing/media purchasing parts of it, but I doubt that’ll ever happen.
Filed under Op-Ed