What to Expect from the iPhone 5S?

This is the iPhone 5. It may soon be mildly outdated.

If AllThingsD is correct, Apple will unveil the next iPhone on Sept. 10.

The publication’s track record is usually pretty good when it comes to iProduct releases, so it’s likely that Apple executives really will take to a stage on that date to unleash their latest smartphone upon the world.

But what do we actually know about the next iPhone? On a cosmetic level, perhaps quite a bit: over the weekend, SlashGear posted photos from Vietnamese Website Tinh te that supposedly show off a dummy model of the “iPhone 5S,” which looks pretty much exactly like the current iPhone 5. This new model features a dual-LED flash on the back, for better photography, along with some slight re-positioning of the front camera and earphone speakers.

If the iPhone 5S (let’s just call it that, in lieu of official word; why not?) retains the broader elements of the iPhone 5’s design, it wouldn’t be an unexpected move for Apple: after all, the company performed a similar incremental upgrade between the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, which are virtually indistinguishable from the outside. But the iPhone 5S will surely feature upgraded hardware over the iPhone 5, including a more powerful processor.

There’s also the possibility that the next iPhone will include a fingerprint scanner, at least if reports from blogs such as Apple Insider are any indication. Apple has made acquisitions in the fingerprint-scanning and security arena that could result in such a feature.

In lieu of a radical redesign or a killer hardware feature, though, Apple may depend on the new iOS 7 to sell the iPhone 5S as something worth lining up around the block to buy (not that the Apple faithful won’t line up on the opening sales weekend). Apple’s next operating system is a radical overhaul, with much of the old iOS design stripped out in favor of a colorful, “flat” layout. Some have praised the new aesthetic as a much-needed upgrade, while others have denigrated it as a total mess.

It’s likely, at least based on Apple’s acquisition patterns over the past few quarters, that iOS 7 will feature improved maps and other software tweaks.

But is all that enough for Apple to reverse perceptions that it’s falling behind Google Android in the smartphone wars? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, and the possible answers will all have their respective defenders.

It’s worth considering, however, the particular conundrum in which Apple finds itself, a mere six years after unleashing the first-generation iPhone. A smartphone can only be so thin, so light, or so fast; at its ultimate point, the device is simply a very thin slab of composite material, a vehicle for the software. And the software reaches its eventual limit, too: thousands of startups and independent developers, churning away at hundreds of thousands of apps, have made sure of that. How much scheduling software, or even casual games, can one individual download and use in a lifetime? How soon until the offerings available on Google Play or Amazon’s Android app store are basically indistinguishable, in their quality and breadth, from anything you might download from Apple?

Right now, the growing emphasis is on the controls that bind all this software and hardware together—most notably voice, which Google and Motorola are exploiting to the hilt with their new Moto X smartphone. Apple’s Siri voice control is more limited in its functionality, at least for the moment, but that will surely change if Google Now (Google’s voice-controlled digital assistant) proves a sizable hit with consumers and businesses. With the iPhone 5S and subsequent devices, Apple could also more thoroughly exploit the hardware sensors to make a platform more responsive to touch, gesture, geography and physical tilting—again, some of which Google has already integrated into the Moto X.

In other words, Apple’s hit something of a plateau with regard to the iPhone. That’s bad for any company seeking to set itself apart in an increasingly crowded smartphone field. What could make the iPhone 5S stand out—even if the hardware is just an incremental upgrade, and a good number of people seem to hate iOS 7 with a fervent passion—is if Apple leapfrogs Google in the interface department, and comes up with a control system that brings together voice and gesture in a way that makes the iPhone seem totally new. That would make for a good “one more thing” for Apple’s Sept. 10 presentation.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cheap plastic iPhones that Apple might roll out on that date, too.

 

Image: Apple

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