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  • Does the iPhone Need a Major Upgrade?

    August 31st, 2011

    The basic form factor of the iPhone was nailed down in 2007. The changes since then have been relatively minor in the scheme of things, moving the case from tapered to square, aluminum to glass, and adjusting the position and appearance of the few external controls.

    Sure, a lot has changed inside. The processor is now designed by Apple, and each upgrade delivers incremental performance improvements. Compare the iPhone 3GS, still being sold, to the iPhone 4, and you’ll leap from sluggish to snappy. Externally the biggest improvement is the Retina Display.

    The real difference from a usability standpoint is the OS, which has had steady and feature rich upgrades. Some of the features were long in coming, such as adding cut, copy and paste. Others are natural evolutions of the iOS touch interface. For iOS 5, Apple is finally going to fix the broken Push Notification system. In its place will be a Notification Center, a place where you can see and act on all of your alerts. The present scheme, putting up a single modal dialog, just stops you in your tracks, shades of the Classic Mac OS. You have to act upon its choices to get rid of it. If more than one notice needs to arrive, it appears you’re stuck.

    Most every element of the iOS is getting a serious update in version five. You’ll be able to perform modest image enhancements of your photos, borrowing some of the tools from iPhoto for OS X. You’ll even be able to open the Camera app from the Lock screen, which will be a real boon in capturing that once-in-a-lifetime moment.

    Perhaps the most significant upgrade will make the iPhone and iPad PC Free. You won’t need a Mac or a PC to activate and set up your iOS device, and all the syncing can be done in the cloud.

    According to Apple, all current iOS gear will be compatible, plus the original iPad and 3rd generation iPod touch, which essentially backdates compatibility to 2009, which isn’t too shabby in the mobile universe. That doesn’t mean performance will necessarily be great on the older hardware. The iPhone 3GS is struggling to keep up with iOS 4, so I suspect the next software upgrade might tempt many of you to finally upgrade your older iPhones.

    That takes us to the next iPhone.

    Now Apple isn’t always predictable. Assuming that a new iPhone had to arrive this summer is only one example where Apple didn’t quite meet analyst expectations, though it doesn’t seem that sales were hurt in any noticeable way. But the rumors now point to an iPhone announcement at the end of September or early in October. If that’s true, the expected early September media event to introduce new iPods won’t be the appropriate venue. Or maybe Apple will fool you yet again.

    Regardless, when you’re not seeing alleged leaked prototypes, you’ll read plenty of speculation on what Apple is going to change.

    One camp has it that Apple is going to deliver a major upgrade, meaning that the square look may be out, and curved may be in yet again. Some suggest the proposed iPhone 5 will have a curved aluminum backside, perhaps mirroring the shape of the iPad 2. From ensuring a family resemblance, this move would make sense. At the same time, the antenna design is being rejiggered to make the iPhone less vulnerable to so-called “death grips.” As much as Apple tried to spin their way out of that controversy, I’ve little doubt that marching orders were given to find a more efficient solution in that $100 million antenna test lab at Apple headquarters.

    The other round of speculation talks of an iPhone 4GS, a piece of hardware that will look very much like the current all-so-popular models, only with revised hardware. Again, the antenna configuration will be altered for better performance when gripped tightly in different ways.

    Regardless, it seems almost a sure thing that the internal workings will include the same A5 processor as the iPad 2. With more higher pixel camera sensors available, it would seem likely that you’ll have eight megapixels rather than five.

    There is a remaining question, and that is whether Apple will go for a world phone, meaning that one model will support both GSM and CDMA in a single handset. That move ought to reduce the costs of manufacturing, though it may not make much difference from a customer standpoint. If you buy an iPhone through one carrier, you’ll be locked in to that carrier unless the unit is jailbroken.

    In the U.S., there are reports of an October  media event by Sprint, ostensibly to discuss company strategy, but possibly to also introduce an iPhone for that network. There’s even the possibility of a T-Mobile version, since it’ll be some time next year, even by the most optimistic assessments, before their planned merger with AT&T is acted on.

    The real issue is whether the new iPhone will be so different as to make it a must-have. If your contract with your wireless carrier is coming due, no problem. It’s also quite possible AT&T will once again liberalize the early termination terms if you order a new iPhone before the two years are up.

    As a practical matter, though, assuming the iPhone 4 will run iOS 5 with essentially the same performance as iOS 4, the rush to upgrade to the next iPhone may not seem so compelling. But count on Apple to amaze us with something totally unexpected in the new model to entice you to upgrade.



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