The final iPhone 6 rumor rollup: what is Apple likely to do?

Improving, not changing, the "iPhone experience"

iPhone 6

This week's iPhone Rumor Rollup, the last before Apple's expected iPhone revelations on Sept. 10, dispenses with rumor in favor of some informed speculation.

[LOOKING BACK: Clips from 6 previous iPhone debuts]

Twelve months after the iPhone 5 was announced, almost nothing is known about the details of the next iPhones (although we’ve been able to dream thanks to slew of iPhoneys: iPhone 6 and iPhone 5S design concepts). Apple is expected to announce the “iPhone 5S” and possibly a lower cost “iPhone 5C” with a plastic body instead of the aluminum and ceramic glass housing of the current model. There’s still confusion over when an “iPhone 6” will be announced: this month, before year’s end, first half of 2014, or later in 2014.

apple iphone invite

iPhone 5S

Appearance: Expect it to look the same. Apple’s design looks to improve the phone, not simply change it. With its aluminum and ceramic glass body, the iPhone 5 achieved a quality of “fit and finish” that is still unparalleled in the smartphone market. It seems unlikely that Apple will change that. In the last few weeks, there have been photos that purported to show rear aluminum housings anodized with subtle gold or gray (or “champagne” and “slate”) colors.

Fingerprint scanner: Long-rumored, and the beta code for iOS 7 has revealed references to such a scanner. The idea is that the scanner will be integrated into the home button to lock/unlock the phone. Yet by itself, this doesn’t seem like a “killer feature.” Its value increases if Apple can tie it into strengthened, expanded, and simplified online authentication and authorization; and in the future to mobile payments and a mobile “wallet.”

Processor: the iPhones have showcased Apple’s growing prowess in designing its A Series mobile processors (iPads typically have a modified version of a processor first appearing in an iPhone).

Don’t expect a four-core chip and certainly not a 64-bit chip.

Instead, the “A7” is likely to use a variety of changes to improve performance and power efficiency. Writing at SemiWiki, on semiconductors, Daniel Nenni is certain that the A7 will be based on Samsung 28 nanometer silicon (the A6 is 32 nm). It could slightly boost clock speed. Apple can also tweak the micro-architecture of its custom-designed Swift cores (first introduced in the iPhone 5’s A6), and the memory subsystem (more bandwidth, improved memory controller). The A6 currently uses Imagination’s PowerVR triple-core graphics processing unit: Apple could boost this to improve graphics performance, or, as some believe, replace it with its own custom GPU.

Display: the iPhone 5 uses Liquid Crystal Display with In Plane Switching, while Samsung has adopted Organic Light Emitting Diode technology and made big improvements to it with the Samsung Galaxy S 4. But the iPhone display remains highly competitive, according to technical comparisons of the phones, by Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies, Amherst, N.H.

Apple could shift to an advanced metal oxide backplane, such as Indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO), to improve display efficiency and performance, according to Soneira. The benefits include more pixels, lower power consumption, and more accurate touch. 

The biggest improvements for mobile displays will come from dynamically changing the Color Gamuts and Intensity Scales to automatically compensate and correct for reflected glare and image wash out from ambient light. Whichever one succeeds is likely to win in the next generation of mobile displays…

Yet for the 2013 iPhone, there may be no need yet to switch to a brand new display technology. Apple could combine a range of improvements that will make the iPhone (and future iPads) even more usable in bright settings. In an earlier analysis, and referring to device makers in general (not just Apple), Soneira listed several changes that could make a big difference in mobile screens, including: reduce screen reflectance to improve readability in brighter light, rejigger the front-facing ambient light sensor (and add more sensors) to measure the brightness of the surrounding light instead of your face; and retool automatic brightness controls so they actually work effectively.

Battery life: Don’t expect a bigger battery, but battery life will at least stay the same if not improve. Apple has optimized its processors to minimize power consumption, which is one reason that the iPhone has a much smaller battery compared to many rival smartphones – it doesn’t need a bigger one. That translates into being thin and light.

IOS 7, apps, cloud services: Apple’s own apps should be a showcase for the impact of the redesigned iOS user interface. IOS 7 is not limited to a different color palette and some new visual design rules. It’s also about organizing information and tasks visually, in layers. Nearly a year after Tim Cook’s unprecedented apology for Apple’s first Maps app and service, introduced with iPhone 5, the company will have the chance to show how this strategic platform has improved.

iPhone 5C

Almost nothing is known about a lower-cost iPhone model, including whether Apple will actually announce one. There has been a swelling stream of photos purporting to show a plastic-bodied iPhone though.

Some have suggested the low-cost iPhone will be an iPhone 5 or even a 5S in a plastic body. Apple watcher John Gruber argues that it could be the iPod Touch with a cellular radio added. The Touch starts at $229 for the 16GB model, introduced earlier this year without the rear-facing 5 megapixel camera still found on the 32GB and 64GB Touch models (but it retains a 1.2 megapixel at the front for FaceTime video chatting, and for video and still photos). [See “Pricing a low-cost iPhone: How 'cheap' is cheap?”

The idea seems to be to offer a “premium” mid-range iPhone that has less-expensive hardware features but offers users the full “iPhone experience” by virtue of fully supporting the redesigned iOS 7.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwjohn_cox@nww.com

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