Apple's fundamental iPhone 5 problem

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

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I think it's safe to say that the new iPhone is likely to be a collection of nice improvements on par with the competition, distinguished mainly by its signature look and its superior iOS. Yet even with the diminished levels of fantasy in this year's rumors, there's been a huge, persistent message that something magical will be unveiled tomorrow. The mismatch's corrosion effect may recur this year.

The likely, hardly magical changes to the "iPhone 5" mirror the evolution of iOS, where the pace of innovation and change has slowed as the mobile OS has matured. To put it charitably, iOS 6 is a subtle set of enhancements to iOS 5, based on what Apple describes on its website. iOS remains the best mobile OS, but it now has credible competition. The iPhone's advances also seem to have slowed on the hardware side, letting competitors -- notably Samsung's Galaxy S III -- take on a lasting mantle of leadership the iPhone used to monopolize.

It's of course possible that Apple will stun us all tomorrow. The company both strongly protects its secrets and engineers fake leaks, as well as misdirects the rumor mill with leaks of concepts under exploration that naive bloggers report as if they were actual products. Perhaps some of the current "iPhone 5" rumors are diversions, and we will in fact be surprised by the real thing. But the iPad 2 in spring 2011 and the iPhone 4 in spring 2010 were the last Apple products to truly surprise us on announcement day -- it's not a guaranteed occurrence.

Whatever is unveiled tomorrow, the underlying issue remains: The intense focus on iPhone (and iPad) rumors is shortening the product's time in the sun, creating a boom and bust cycle for Apple. For users, that may not immediately matter -- most people upgrade their smartphone every few years, skipping one to three generations each time. Apple has enjoyed huge financial success despite that -- it now accounts for 77 percent of the mobile industry's profits, even with the slower iPhone 4S sales -- because so many new customers have come on board and stuck with Apple essentially forever.

But that customer base is getting saturated in the United States. In big growth markets such as China, the iPhone is not the draw it is here, as strong Android competitors provide an alternative U.S. consumers did not have in the early smartphone era.

Even if Apple's profits are not affected because of virgin demand in the developing world, the establishment of a regular boom and bust cycle could lessen its ability to steer both the mobile industry and the larger user community as it has been able to for several years. Let's not forget that the iPhone and iPad were truly revolutionary, and key advancements such as iOS 4's management APIs enabled the whole BYOD phenomenon that has reshaped businesses' mobile strategy and often led to a broader rethink of user technology strategy (aka the consumerization of IT).

Neither Android nor Windows Phone have had anywhere near that impact, and Research in Motion's BlackBerry stopped enjoying that kind of influence a decade ago. How Apple addresses what seems to be a slower pace of dramatic innovation as mobile platforms get more mature -- and how it deals with the corrosive effect of all rumors all the time -- will matter more to everyone in the long run than any one product announcement.

This article, "Apple's fundamental iPhone 5 problem," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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