After a lengthier than usual wait, tomorrow we get the next iPhone.
The burning question, of course, is how much of an update it will be. The iPhone 4 was a big step up from its predecessor, the 3GS, which itself was basically the iPhone 3G with a better camera and speedier insides. The iPhone 4 did the camera and speed tricks again, while changing up the outside and adding a considerably sharper screen.
Will the iPhone 5 represent a tuning of an already tried-and-true device? Or will the longer wait result in something that's noticeably new? Those questions will be answered tomorrow morning, when Apple holds its "Let's Talk iPhone" event (go here for CNET's live coverage). In the interim, here's a small laundry list of things to keep an eye out for as the event unfolds.
The most obvious thing to expect, of course, is a new iPhone. As mentioned earlier, the real question is just how new that new will be. Apple didn't have to do a whole lot between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS to make the 3GS a success. The extra processing power and souped-up camera added video recording, and enabled a whole new class of apps.
Similar things happened with the iPhone 4 jumping to HD video recording and quadrupling the number of pixels that were on the same-size screen. The way apps looked became much more noticeable for users on the newer models, which in turn led to some developers coming back to long-abandoned apps to give them a new coat of paint, and maybe even fix a few bugs in the process.
Still, rewinding back to last year, the big iPhone 4 reveal was almost anticlimactic, owing to leaks that showed its exterior design months ahead of the official unveiling. Those included a high-profile leak of a near-finished device by blog Gizmodo, which posted photos and videos of the device in April, some two months ahead of Apple's event. Then there were photos and videos from Vietnamese site Tinhte, showing off the device once again.
When the time came to see the real device, all that was left to wonder about were the internals and how much it would cost. This time around, those sorts of leaks didn't happen. Yes, once again an Apple employee lost a prototype phone in a bar (in July), but we don't know where it ended up after that. It certainly wasn't in a photo and video expose (at least it hasn't been so far).
What's remained the same, however, is the flurry of rumors, which have been given longer than usual to percolate, twist, and turn. The speculation involves everything from talk of a mellow processor and camera boost to murmurings of a drastic overhaul that will create a device bearing little resemblance to previous models. Or hey, maybe we'll get both of those devices.
The two rumor camps have pointed toward differing possibilities for what the next iPhone will offer:
The iPhone 4S
An iPhone that would look just like the iPhone 4 people have come to know--and to buy quite a few of in the past year--but on the inside would have a beefier dual-core processor, and a better camera. The device would also sport a networking chip that would make it possible to hop onto either GSM or CDMA networks, letting Apple offer just one device that could be sold to multiple carriers. That last detail was hinted at by Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo at the Reuters Global Technology Summit in May.
Adding to the iPhone 4S theory was a developer beta version of iTunes 10.5 that went out late last week with "iPhone 4S" noted in the software's code.
Rumors have surged one way or another to suggest that this device would be either the one and only new iPhone coming this year, or a low-cost option to be sold alongside...
The iPhone 5
A substantial redesign from the fourth-generation device, this iPhone would feature a bigger screen while shaving depth to sit thinner in your pocket or purse. Inside would be a dual-core processor, an 8 megapixel camera (up from the iPhone 4's 5MP sensor), the aforementioned "World Mode" functionality to hop onto the differing cellular networks from the same phone, speedier HSPA+ networking technology, and possibly even a new option for 64GB of built-in storage.
Adding to speculation about this device were a number of protective cases that emerged out of China in the past few months. According to a report by blog M.I.C. Gadget last week, you can blame the parade of cases on a next-generation iPhone prototype that made its way out a Foxconn production facility earlier this year, allowing third-party case manufacturers to get a look at the outside.
So which one will it be? The iPhone 4S mention in the iTunes developer beta from last week is pretty compelling evidence on the 4S side. But then what's up with all those cases in China?
In any event, don't expect either possibility to hit stores Tuesday. With previous iPhones and with iPads there's been a gap between when products are announced and when they go on sale. Why? It's in Apple's benefit to get a lead on producing units before they go on sale; to give developers a jump on making use of any new features and APIs; and to monopolize another few days or so of news coverage when devices arrive at stores. When will that be? Likely in the next week or so, according to a September report from AppleInsider claiming that Apple told store staffers they can't take any vacation time in the second week of October.
White iPod Touch
Along with a new phone, there have been murmurs of Apple adding a white option to the iPod Touch line.
You might remember Apple had trouble bringing a white iPhone to market, delivering it to customers well after it was originally promised. That said, it offered a white option with the iPad 2 from the very beginning of its going on sale.
The iPod Touch is effectively an iPhone without the phone, and Apple has traditionally released it a few months after the new iPhone. This time around, the iPhone event seems to be taking the place of the company's annual iPod event, suggesting that the unveiling of the iPod product line may, in fact, be included in tomorrow's announcements, but that the iPod will take a backseat to the company's star product.
New software, services
iOS 5 gold master
In June, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs referred to software as the "soul" of the company's products, and for the iPhone, that includes iOS. Tomorrow you can expect more release details on, if not the full release of, iOS 5, Apple's next version of the software that powers the iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, and Apple TV.
iOS 5 made its debut in June, and is currently on its seventh developer beta, released at the tail end of August. Expect Apple to say it's done, and ready for developers, with customers getting it as a download in the days ahead of the next iPhone's release.
Among iOS 5's new features is an overhauled notification system that puts a history of notifications on a user's lock screen, as well as a new pull-down menu that adds things like weather and stock information. The software also brings tweaks to the built-in camera software, and a new messaging platform called iMessage that lets iOS users text and chat with each other using the phone's data connection.
More iOS 5 features?
There could be more in store as part of iOS 5 though. A longstanding rumor, that's since led to screenshots and mock-up videos, is deep voice-recognition integration. A report posted by TechCrunch in March, some three months ahead of iOS 5's official unveiling, said that Apple planned to "deeply" integrate the voice technology from Siri, a company it acquired last April. Such integration could possibly include APIs for developers to hook into for using the technology in their apps, the report claimed.
Such a feature did not emerge in iOS 5 during Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference or in any of the subsequent developer betas, but the story has lived on. Last week 9to5mac made extensive claims about the feature making its debut as part of the next iPhone's unveiling, describing a system that can turn voice commands into actions on the phone. Google has attempted similar goals with its own voice-recognition software, making a competing offering from Apple very likely.
One other feature Apple could be keeping under wraps until tomorrow is a panoramic-photo-snapping feature in its camera application. This would let users sweep their phone from side to side to capture a panoramic photo, a feature some point-and-shoot cameras have begun to offer in recent years. Instructions for such a feature appeared within traces of code from the camera app shortly after the June release of the first developer beta of iOS 5. Despite that, the feature has not gone live, suggesting Apple might have been putting some finishing touches on it.
iCloud release date
When introducing iOS 5 at WWDC, Apple took the wraps off iCloud, the big reboot and retooling of MobileMe into a service that ferries data between devices and stores device backups in the cloud. Developers have had access to iCloud since then, and a public rollout was promised for the fall.
Parts of iCloud already went live a few months ago, including new versions of iWork for iOS that mirror a user's documents in iCloud, letting applications tap into that data to pull up a document. Same goes for the redownloading of apps, music, movies, and books, which Apple puts under the same iCloud umbrella.
What users are getting as part of the public rollout, which will likely coincide with the release of iOS 5, are features that augment experiences in iOS and Mac OS X. Those include Photo Stream, a feature that sends photos you've taken on your iPhone over to your iPad and computer, and vice versa. There's also iTunes Match, a subscription service that scans your library for ripped tracks and will replace them with DRM-free, high-quality tracks if they're in Apple's iTunes Store library. That's for a fee, of course--a yearly subscription fee that Apple is likely eager to start getting.
Adding to these two features is a back-up service that will store a full recovery copy of your iOS device on Apple's servers, acting just like the copy that would get backed up locally to iTunes. This means that in case of disaster, or just when buying a new iOS device, you can plug-in your credentials and have the device mirror what was on the gadget you backed up.
The missing piece of the iCloud puzzle is music streaming. Apple has demoed music streaming through the iTunes Store in the form of prerelease album previews, but not with iCloud copies of music tracks, which still need to be downloaded to the device you want to play them on. Is an event for the iPhone the right place to introduce that? Apple could surprise us. Read my colleagueGreg Sandoval's take from last week on what could be cooking behind the scenes.
When the first iPhone launched, it was a marriage of sorts between Apple and AT&T, one that ran up until this year, when Verizon got the iPhone 4. Now Sprint is said to be joining that party in the U.S., getting Apple's next iPhone, and bringing the stateside carrier count up to three.
A report today by The Wall Street Journal claimed Sprint had struck a deal with Apple to buy up 30.5 million iPhones over the next four years as part of a deal valued at $20 billion. An unnamed source told the outlet that the deal would put Sprint at a loss until 2014, due to the carrier subsidizing $500 for each phone.
Similar efforts could be going on in China as well, with several reports in the past few months suggesting Apple had inked, or was close to making, deals with China Mobile and China Telecom, adding to Apple's presence in the country beyond its current deal with China Unicom.
Expect Apple to provide an update on the number of carriers it's on already, adding mention of any additional ones, after taking the wraps off any new hardware.
New boss running the show
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs stepped down from his role as CEO near the end of August, saying he could no longer meet his duties. Immediately taking over as CEO was Tim Cook, the company's former chief operating officer and longtime Apple veteran.
A report from AllThingsD last month, which correctly provided a time and date for tomorrow's event, also mentioned that Cook would be giving the presentation.
This isn't Tim Cook's first time running the show. In fact, he's been the one in charge when Jobs has been out on his previous medical leaves. Still, you can bet Cook's performance will be under a microscope. However, expect much of the presentation to be done by Apple's senior vice president of iOS software, Scott Forstall, and Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Marketing Phil Schiller. And with any hardware-specific boosts, expect a number of select third-party developers to share the stage, showing off what they've been working on in secret in the lead-up to the event.
CNET will be live on the scene tomorrow morning to bring you the news as it happens. Look for details about our live blog, and how you can tune in, a little later today.
Updated at 12:16 p.m. PT with details from the today's Wall Street Journal story about Sprint getting the iPhone.