Apple's fundamental iPhone 5 problem

After 18 months of iPhone rumors and inventions, how can Apple possibly deliver on the public's expectations?

Tomorrow, Apple will unveil the "iPhone 5" -- which could be called the iPhone 5, the new iPhone, or something else -- and 18 months of rumormongering and tall tales will briefly stop as everyone digests the reality of the "iPhone 5." Of course, by tomorrow afternoon, the blogosphere will again teem with iPhone rumors, this time for the "iPhone 6," as well as for new iPads, both the 8-inch "iPad Mini" and standard 10-inch variety.

A year ago, we saw the same intense speculation and fan fiction for the "iPhone 5" that turned out to be the iPhone 4S. The immediate reaction was severe disappointment, as the fantasies that had circulated throughout the Web for more than six months turned out to be just that: fantasies. There was a brief backlash against Apple in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, but the iPhone 4S became a huge hit and got strong reviews.

Apple may not be so lucky this time.

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The iPhone 4S's glow wore off by spring 2012, when the "iPhone 5" rumors hit high gear again. Strong competing smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note grabbed more attention -- and iPhone 4S sales stalled as the anticipatory slowdown in iPhone sales began months earlier than usual due to the rumors. Until the iPhone 4S, Apple typically got a nine-month buzz around each new model, while competitors got a month or so max, even for well-received products such as the Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Droid Razr.

That short honeymoon is actually the norm for the phone industry, which is why major providers such as Samsung, Motorola, and HTC announce new models every few months, then we quickly forget most of them. Apple does one a year, a beacon we look to for 12 months. But that pace may not work so well given the constant rumormongering that both delays new purchases and creates a fatigue around the iPhone phenomenon. On the other hand, by delivering multiple smartphones each year Apple would sink into the sea of announcements, trading the fatigue effect for a short pop easily lost with all the others. I don't know the answer to this dilemma.

Another uncomfortable truth is that fewer recent iPhone models are actually that revolutionary, and the mismatch each year between what Apple delivers and what the rumor mill fantasizes creates a huge expectation gap that's growing corrosive. We saw that last year in a dramatic way as almost none of the rumored features came true.

This year, the rumors have been as persistent but generally not as fantastical. We're all expecting a larger screen (the iPhone's current 3.5 inches is simply too small, and 4 inches is the new bare minimum), an LTE 4G radio (which has to fall back to 3G in most of the country), and perhaps a new dock connector -- that's pretty much it. I'm sure we'll get other refinements, perhaps to the camera or audio (subscription-based streaming music à la Spotify is the current rumor). It's possible we'll see a new type of sensor or, less interestingly, an NFC chip, and possibly changes to the two-year-old industrial design that debuted in the iPhone 4. So far, these obvious updates are nothing to write home about.

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