With iPhone 5 finally unveiled, it's already become old hat for the iOSphere. After all, what's really new?
Yes, it has a bigger screen, the CPU is more powerful, it has LTE, and that cool diamond-cut chamfer.
But honestly, it looks so much like the iPhone 4S, which looks so much like the iPhone 4. For some, it's evidence if not proof of the "death of innovation" at Apple, the already-baneful legacy of bean-counter Tim Cook vs. visionary Steve Jobs.
So to get a really delicious technical frisson, you need to look to the future, and the iOSphere has already begun doing just that. Some of the rumor and speculation from earlier this month.
"Start planning to dazzle us, please. Nothing corporate. Something freaking amazing."
~Chris Maxcer, at MacNewsWorld, advising Apple on the how to succeed in the smartphone market.
iPhone 6: The date
It's "absurd" to think Apple will release iPhone 6 in early or mid-2013, a mere six to nine months after releasing iPhone 5. But they might do it anyway.
The "both-and" formulation is typical of the iOSsphere, and evident in a post at The iPhone6NewsBlog, which points out that past rumors predicting earlier releases for Apple mobile products have proven groundless, not to mention absurd. But when Apple unveiled a fourth-generation full-size iPad this month, replacing the third-generation iPad announced in March, everyone felt cheated or confused or dizzy with the potentialities.
"But for as much as rumors of Apple releasing new devices less than a year from the most recent iteration's release might seem like pipe dreams, Apple's move to release a fourth generation iPad along with its iPad mini this week should at least give us some pause: Cupertino has now proven it is capable of doing it."
Cupertino is capable of doing anything.
"Why then would it be impossible to imagine that the next iPhone — maybe not the 6, but a refreshed iPhone 5S — couldn't be released at the WWDC in June of 2013?"
The iOSphere has proven it's capable of imagining anything.
iPhone 6 will have a "magic morphing chassis" to hide "hideous blemishes"
TechRadar doubtless speaks for many in its outrage over how the iPhone 5's "luxurious aluminum and glass chassis" is "interrupted" on the back by the camera and flash and on the front with that "unsightly light sensor and front-facing camera."
What idiot suggested giving the Apple design team a prestigious award?
But, as TechRadar says, "[l]uckily it looks like the Cupertino-based firm may be about to hide those hideous blemishes, if a new set of patents are to be understood correctly."
Most of the accounts of Apple patents don't delve too deeply into either the scientific details of Apple patents or the practical difficulties involved in implementing them in mass market manufacturing processes. And many of the accounts continue to assume, despite years of evidence to the contrary, that Apple smartphone and tablet patents will show up in the next product release, just months away. This is the Fantasy & Science Fiction section of Internet rumoring.
The main patent in question involves technologies that create a "smart glass" panel (or "magic morphing chassis" as TechRadar translates it) - an electric current can make it change from opaque to transparent. Smartphone components, such as a camera and flash, can be hidden by an opaque window and then made visible by making the window transparent.
Although TechRadar implies that Apple will do this using a "polymer-dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC) window," the text of the patent's abstract actually mentions PDLC as one possible technology. The website doesn't explain what polymer-dispersal liquid crystal actually is.
Wikipedia's explanation is that "liquid crystals are dissolved or dispersed into a liquid polymer followed by solidification or curing of the polymer," causing the crystals to form droplets randomly suspended in the solid polymer, which is one of several layers in a smart window. The material is naturally translucent until an electric current is applied, causing the liquid crystals to align, and allowing light to pass through the glass.
Most applications so far have been for large glass panels in windows or skylights. Display vendors, like Samsung in this demo at Consumer Electronics Show 2011, are using it in windows that also double as large display screens. In 2005, Nissan unveiled its Micra CC car in London, encasing it in a glass box made of 150 smartglass panels, which were programmed to change their transparency. A YouTube video shows the display in action.
With the magic morphing stuff your iPhone 6 "will look like one continuous slab of uninterrupted beauty," TechRadar assures us. You can see a preview of such a slab, and the reaction by iPhone lovers, in this video clip.
TechRadar is dazzled, but resignedly realistic. "This is some pretty serious, and awesome sounding, technology right here, and while we'd love to see in on the iPhone 6 in 2013, the reality is that it's probably a few years off being commercially viable."
iPhone 6: whatever it is, it better be "freaking amazing"
And, oh yes: "revolutionary."
"Hey Apple, Better Get Cracking on an Amazing iPhone 6," warns Chris Maxcer, at MacNewsWorld.
Don't get him wrong. He loves the iPhone 5. Well, sort of. That's because the iPhone 5 failed in one critical area: It didn't engender lust. "I want the iPhone 5 and I'll appreciate the iPhone 5, but lust? No way. That's the critical piece. Can Apple still create products that incite gadget lust?"
Maxcer doesn't have a list of features he wants in the Next iPhone so we don't have to listen, yet again, to yet another ecstatic account of the 8th Wonder of the Smartphone World, near field communications.
But he does have "long-term nagging doubts," he admits. And the doubts give voice to questions, Big Questions. And lots of them:
+ "Can Apple re-imagine a new smartphone?"
+ "Are we looking at a bleak future of incremental upgrades? Will the next iPhone 6 come in 6 snazzy new colors? Will Apple try to offer new paint and tires with the next version of the iPhone?"
+ "Apple created a world where people care about design, but can Apple continue to be insanely great with the overall design of the iPhone?"
We feel for the guy, laboring under this immense burden of technoangst. He cries out to Apple in his anguish.
"Just please don't confuse massive sales and happy customers for success because you're treading close to the edge," he warns the world's most profitable, and apparently, most unsuccessful company. "I get the impression that Steve Jobs never confused massive commercial sales with success. Sales is not the end goal. Sales is not success."
What is success? "Being the leader means creating products that delight, amaze, and compel the world to pay attention," Maxcer counsels Apple. "Commercial sales success is a byproduct of a great product. It's just one proof point, but that's it, a proof point. Being the leader, no matter what the market numbers say, means inciting desire, pure and simple."
The most wanted features for iPhone 6
Whatever it is, iPhone 6 can't come soon enough to spare us six or nine or 12 months more of lists.
Far-rumoring bloggers like CNET's David Carnoy are already posting their lists of the must-have, most wanted, most desirable, most cool features for iPhone 6.
And the lists look a lot like the lists before the iPhone 5 was released. And before the iPhone 4S was released.
Like "biometric security," even though Carnoy undermines his own claim that this is a "most wanted" feature by saying this is "hardly a must-have upgrade." But. "[B]ut it would be cool to swipe with your finger -- instead of entering a password -- to unlock your phone," he writes.
No list would be complete without near field communications, NFC, and it's on Carnoy's list. "Apple Senior Vice President Phil Schiller said that it isn't clear that NFC is a solution to any current problem," Carnoy notes. "That doesn't mean that Apple won't go ahead later on and use it as a selling point for a future iPhone." And that's true. Because in the future, there might be a current problem to which NFC actually is a solution.
Storage. Can you ever have enough, really? "Most people think 64GB is enough," Carnoy admits grudgingly. "Still, some folks are itching for a 128GB version, even if it would carry a price tag of over $500 (and maybe $600) with a contract."
The other stuff on the must-have list include built-in inductive charging, customizable widgets, "better performance" (which is something Apple has offered on just about every iPhone, a wider screen ("a lot of people wanted Apple to go wider and taller -- not just taller," Carnoy points out), and better battery life ("Plenty of people would trade a slightly thicker phone for better battery life," he declares).
Yet even with all these must-haves, we doubt Carnoy's iPhone 6 would meet Maxcer's Freaking Amazing Standard (see previous).
iPhone 6 needs bigger screen sizes
"Apple may need an iPhone 6 sooner rather than later," CNET's Dan Farber argued earlier this month, just before the announcement of the iPad mini.
That's because, he argues, competing device makers using Android or Windows 8 or Windows Phone 8 will offer more choices, including smartphones with screen sizes larger than the nearly-four-inch display of the iPhone 5.
For example, he notes, Samsung says it sold 20 million Galaxy S III smartphones, with a 4.8-inch high-def display, in just over three months. The implication is that if there was a 4.8-inch iPhone, some number of the Galaxy buyers would have bought the iPhone instead.
"There is a payoff in offering a broader selection of mobile devices for Apple's competitors" Farber says. "Google's Android platform dominates the market, with more than 60 percent share, compared to less than 20 for Apple."
It's not clear how that fact actually translates into a "payoff" for the specific Android-based phone manufacturers. As Farber notes, it's Apple alone that's been reaping the vast majority of profits for the entire global smartphone industry.
Farber, and many others, take the smaller-screened iPad mini as evidence that Apple is changing its mind on offering mobile device options, and will do so for the iPhone. And it certainly has done that for its long-running iPod line of media players, creating a variety of sub-brands over the years.
The iPad mini is aimed at people who want an iPad with a smaller screen. Yet Apple didn't enter the "7-inch tablet market," if there is such a thing. It's offering a 7.9-inch tablet, a size apparently chosen with as much deliberation and experimentation as the decision to offer the full-sized iPad at 9.7 inches.
Farber argues that "the popularity of larger screens has to be a factor that impacts how long Apple can ride the iPhone 5."
"If the majority of smartphones sold in 2013 have larger than 4-inch screens, Apple isn't going to miss the market opportunity by sticking too long with its one-handed phone design," he says.
But it's not clear that Apple sees "market opportunity" the way Farber does. For one thing, Apple isn't offering "smartphone choice." It's offering "the iPhone," a specific brand that to date, still seems to be the most popular single brand (though the Samsung Galaxy S III, released in June, is at least closing in, in terms of unit sales).
It's not entirely clear how, or even whether, Samsung and Apple "compete" in smartphones. "The basis of competition is the aspect of an offering for which a customer is willing to pay a premium price," according to independent analyst Horace Dediu, in an August 2012 post at his Asymco blog. "It's hard to know (or to put your finger on) what the basis actually is, but we can test whether it's the same by measuring whether two products capture prices the same way. If one product that seems to resemble another can obtain price advantage consistently, then perhaps it's being bought for a different reason."
Didiu's numbers show the earlier Galaxy S models having some success in the U.S., but not matching iPhone sales, or growing in overall sales volume. These numbers were taken before the July 2012 introduction of the S III on U.S. mobile networks.
Two other charts show the difference between iPhone prices and Android smartphone prices. One shows that the unsubsidized prices for iPhone models have been considerably higher than for the Galaxy S I and II models, and have decreased at a much slower rate over time. The second chart compares "price erosion" for the iPhone models and for a wide range of Android smartphones over their first four quarters of sales: the Galaxy S models have much less erosion than many other models, but all the Android phones show significantly greater price erosion than the iPhones.
"Samsung's pattern is not unusual...," Dediu concludes. "Prices drop. It's a standard industry phenomenon. Therefore the question is not perhaps what is Samsung's basis of competition: it's the same as the overall phone industry. The question is, what is the basis of competition for the iPhone."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.