Will we see iPhone updates at Apple's event?

Apple’s already promised to reveal its “latest creation” this Wednesday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and pundits and professional guessologists are already predicting that the company will unveil the much-rumored tablet. Or perhaps two tablets. Or some new software. Or a designer clothing label. Point is: something. But what could the much ballyhooed event mean for Apple’s so-last-year device, the iPhone?

While the paint-splattered invite for the Apple event doesn’t obviously suggest any connection to the iPhone, Apple’s been known to play the field at its press events. The 2008 notebook event also featured a revamped 24-inch Apple Cinema display. Last September’s “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” event was not just rock and roll, as Apple spent time on iPhone gaming. So it’s not inconceivable that something could be in store for the iPhone. Consider the options.

A brand new iPhone - So far, Apple’s shipped every new model of iPhone in the summer, dating back to the very first iteration. Both the iPhone 3G and the 3GS were announced at the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference and shipped within about a month. Then again, the very first iPhone was pre-announced by Steve Jobs at Macworld Expo 2007, with a ship date of almost six months in the future, so it’s hardly impossible. But the tea leaves suggest that the 3GS is still doing well, and there’s no substantial enough upgrade (4G technology is not nearly widespread enough at this point) to merit a whole new model. Forecast: Not bloody likely

An incremental iPhone upgrade - If you’re looking for new phone hardware, here’s where I’d place my money. This would probably take the form of a storage bump, upping the high-end 3GS to 64GB and the low-end to 32GB and dropping the 16GB 3GS to $99. Then again, right after the holidays may not be the best time to re-price your top seller—think of all the potentially miffed people who shelled out just a month ago. Forecast: Doubtful, but possible

iPhone OS 4.0 - If not new hardware, what about new software? Rumors of iPhone 4.0 have already begun circulating, so perhaps Apple’s ready to tell us about all the new features it has in store. But Apple’s two previous major iPhone revisions, 2.0 and 3.0, both debuted in March at special events. While Apple is no doubt already testing 4.0 firmware, I see no reason for the company to change an established habit. Not to mention that such an update would probably get short shrift next to any—ahem—other announcements. Forecast: Doubtful, but possible

Incremental iPhone software update - So, probably no major iPhone OS update. But what about a minor update? iPhone 3.1 was introduced at last year’s Rock and Roll iPod event, meaning iPhone 3.2 is probably next. That would seem to be a more reasonable update than a whole new version. Plus, it would allow Apple to get any lingering kinks in 3.1 ironed out before moving on to 4.0 in March. Apple did release iPhone 2.2.1 on January 27 2009 (duh duh duh!), following a November 2008 release of 2.2. Forecast: Quite possible

New U.S. carriers - Apple and AT&T seem more and more like they’re heading for a divorce fostered by irreconcilable differences. So could the longstanding iPhone exclusivity deal be nearing an end? Could we see Apple announce new U.S. carriers for the iPhone? A long-rumored deal with Verizon? The complication here is that deals with either Verizon or T-Mobile would require new hardware—in Verizon’s case, the network runs on an entirely different protocol and T-Mobile’s network uses a different frequency for its 3G service. Having already deemed new hardware unlikely, I think Apple probably won’t show off its handset running on a different network on Wednesday. That said, it’s possible that it might announce plans to expand to multiple carriers later in the year. Forecast: Possible, but unlikely

Of course, there’s also a better than even possibility that the iPhone won’t make more than a cameo appearance at Wednesday’s event, with Steve Jobs talking about how many Apple’s sold or using it as an example of how the company has already revolutionized an industry. But with the iPhone approaching its third birthday, there’s a good chance that it’s about to take a backseat to its new little sibling.

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