Don't hold your breath for an iPhone 5 this year

Everyone's talking about rumors and predictions for the iPhone 5 -- but Apple is much more likely to deliver an iPhone 4 variant

If I see one more speculative story on the iPhone 5, I may scream. Given the continual nattering about the iPhone 5 on the blogosphere, don't flinch when you hear that wail. And don't be surprised that there is no iPhone 5 shown in June at Apple's usual iPhone-announcing venue, its Worldwide Developers Conference.

Apple is a brilliant source of successful innovation, especially in mobile, so I'm not surprised that everyone is projecting their desires onto Apple and its iPhone. But Apple is also a very methodical company, one that strategically manages its innovation rollouts. For more than a decade under CEO Steve Jobs's leadership, Apple has very consistently rationed its major redesign efforts to every two or three years per product line. In between, it typically does smaller annual updates. This is true for its Macs, Mac OS X, iPods, iWork, iLife, Safari, and on and on.

[ See which iPad 2 rumors you should ignore -- and what Apple should do to improve iOS. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

On stage, Jobs acts like a circus barker treating every change and event as earth-shattering, but of course most are routine. So why anyone expects the iPhone 5 to follow just a year after the iPhone 4 is beyond me. You can bet that Apple will offer a refined model of the iPhone 4 this summer -- call it the iPhone 4X -- but not a major redesign. Just as the iPhone 3G S followed the iPhone 3G, the 2010 iPod Touch followed the 2009 model with just minor changes, the 2010's MacBook Pro followed the 2009 model with minor changes, and the 2010 MacBook Air's major redesign came two years after the first version. Do you see the pattern? Apple's stuck to it for years. (At least you can expect a major MacBook Pro redesign this year!)

Just as the new "iPad 2" expected to be released this spring is likely to be a refinement of last year's original, so too will the next iPhone be a refinement of last year's iPhone 4. We've seen some indications of what the iPhone 4X may offer based on the refinements Apple put in the Verizon version of the iPhone 4 released this week: a new antenna design that seems to address a perennial iPhone weakness, a dual-mode-capable radio chip that also incorporates the GPS radio, and changes to the battery and vibrator designs. (iFixIt has a visual teardown of the Verizon iPhone 4 that's fascinating to see.)

Here's what you can reasonably expect in that iPhone 4X, based on Apple's typical practice:

  • It'll be a little thinner and faster -- it almost always is!
  • The home button may disappear or become virtual. Removing parts is an ongoing Apple activity. A physical button does have the advantage over the usual on-screen touch gesture of being harder to activate accidentally in your pocket or purse, so I expect Apple will find a way to replicate that intentionality.
  • The GSM model used by AT&T in the United States will get the redesigned antenna from the Verizon version. I don't believe for a second that the antenna redesign was solely for Verizon CDMA network compatibility; I'm sure Apple is quietly improving the previous antenna design to reduce the "death grip" issue, in line with the company's history of slipstreaming such repairs.
  • There could be a 64GB version. That would let the iPhone match the iPod Touch's top capacity.
  • There could be a world-capable (CDMA plus GSM) model for CDMA carriers such as Verizon. The Verizon iPhone 4 has a dual-radio chip, but no slot for a GSM MicroSIM. The regular iPhone 4 has such a slot (it's required for GSM devices), and it makes sense for Apple to consolidate the case and innards designs across the two radio standards. Of course, even if Apple makes a world-capable phone for Verizon and perhaps Sprint, the CDMA carriers may choose to not enable the GSM capability on their versions (a simple slot shield could be used to disable MicroSIM access), to prevent customers from changing networks later on. It would've made sense to deliver the current Verizon iPhone 4 as a world-capable phone, but the fact that Apple didn't include the SIM slot tells me that it or Verizon chose not to. Maybe there were firmware or other issues yet to be resolved, and the iPhone 4X could be where they are addressed. We'll see.
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