For months, rumors and speculation have been obsessed with the next iPhone's hardware including the screen size, a processor upgrade, more memory, the shape of the case and even the material used for the case. But Tuesday's announcement at Apple's California headquarters is more likely to show the company's conviction that hardware is in a sense simply an "enabler" for software.
iPhone 5 will be notable because of confluence of three software elements: version 5 of the iOS operating system, the services that make up Apple's new iCloud offering, and reportedly a sophisticated voice-powered user interface, dubbed "Assistant."
IPHONEYS: The iPhone 5 edition
A number of Apple watchers now think the new iPhone will be very similar, including in screen size, to the existing iPhone 4, which has proven spectacularly successful. The key hardware differences are likely to be the use of Apple's dual-core A5 processor, and adding a 64GB model to the existing 16GB and 32GB models.
There is "pretty good evidence that Apple is set to release a new phone that looks like the iPhone 4," writes tech blogger John Gruber. "The question is whether that phone will be the new high-end model, or the new low-end model. (If it's the high-end model, what will the low-end model be? It doesn't seem right to me that Apple would keep selling the 3GS into 2012. The simplest solution: 16/32/64 GB A5-powered iPhones at the high-end, and an 8 GB A4-powered iPhone at the low end, all of them looking like today's iPhone 4.)"
With the release of iOS 5, announced in June, a large number of existing iPhone users will be able to upgrade to a bunch of new features and capabilities, without needing more storage or a faster processor. In part that's because iOS 5 will support the new iCloud service.
Together, they create a new model of Apple mobile devices, cutting them completely free of being tethered to either a Mac or a PC. From now on, the iPhone and presumably other iOS devices will rely solely on a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. Starting with iOS 5, software content can be updated, transferred and backed up incrementally and wirelessly, via Wi-Fi Sync and SSL, without having to cable the device to your computer.
Push notifications of emails, missed calls and other updates or state changes will be much smoother for users in iOS 5. It's a subtle but essential difference that will make each iOS device, including iPhone 5, seem much like a "live" device on the network. Until now, the Apple Push Notification System, unveiled in 2009, interrupted whatever task the user was doing: Each notification had to be manually acknowledged. But in iOS 5, the new Notification Center will consolidate these alerts and changes for you, letting you access them by swiping a finger down from the top menu. At a glance, you can see missed calls, new voicemails and text and push notices from the App Store.
Apple is striving for a similar seamless quality to the new iCloud services. [See "Apple iCloud: A Visual Tour"] iOS apps can create documents that are automatically pushed to other devices in the user's iCloud "account," including Macs, with no user intervention. Similarly, iCloud will work with local apps to sync mail, contacts, calendars, apps, books, music and photos.
A new single sign-on feature in iOS 5, with a secure API for application developers, will streamline secure interactions between and among applications. An app can ask iOS for a user's Twitter account password, and the user can decide whether to grant that application access. This can be seen in the tighter, smoother iOS integration with Twitter: An iPhone user can snap a photo with the phone, tap an action button, then tap "Tweet," for example. Users don't need to re-log in for every app.
So what will the new iPhone model do that the existing ones, upgraded to iOS 5, can't?
That remains to be seen, but according to some observers, Apple has given a big hint in the invitations it sent out last week to select journalists and bloggers: "Let's talk iPhone," read the invitation.
Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac has an extensive story, which seems clearly based on details leaked by sources in Apple, about a new iOS software program called "Assistant." Assistant lets you verbally tell iPhone 5 what to do, such as schedule an appointment or find a store: The phone processes the speech and Assistant interacts with an array of systems and application software to get it done. It can even ask you questions, such as which email address or phone number to use to contact someone.
Speculation about some kind of major improvement to Apple's 2009 Voice Control feature has been percolating for a year, since Apple acquired a startup called Siri, for example in the coverage by VentureBeat. Siri originally created a verbal assistant for the iPhone, using speech technology licensed from Nuance. Reviews were favorable, but it was still constrained.
Apple and Siri seem to have extended the core technology across the new iPhone, creating a rich, flexible, and powerful voice interface. To do this will require the processing power of the dual-core A5 and additional memory.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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