Assessing the chances of a smartphone surprise

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For a company whose every move is shrouded in mystery and whose every public pronouncement triggers another round of “Guess the product unveiling,” Apple isn’t that difficult to figure out. When it comes to product debuts, the company hews to a fairly predictable schedule of roll-outs before deliberately selected audiences at times you could set your watch to, give or take a month.

Time to roll out new iPods? Look for Apple to hold a press event in September, timed to get a jump on the holiday shopping season. iPad updates are usually held in the first three months of the year at press events where Apple can show off all the latest changes. New iMacs and MacBooks? Unless there’s a substantive redesign, that’s usually something Apple will announce by press release.

Which is why last month’s rumor that Apple was planning some massive hardware unveiling for the Apple Store’s tenth anniversary was so laughable. Apple times such things to get maximum exposure from a tech press eager to report its every move. It certainly doesn’t save hardware reveals for the weekend crowd standing in line at the Cinnabon at the local galleria.

And that brings me to next week’s Worldwide Developers Conference, where Apple has already been quite explicit about what it plans to discuss in Monday’s keynote. The company will show off the already-previewed Mac OS X Lion, tell us all about the soon-to-be-revealed iCloud, and provide the first public glimpse at what awaits us in iOS 5.

It’s that last announcement that’s particularly intriguing, and not just because iOS 5, unlike Lion, has remained under wraps up until now. I’ll be paying extra close attention to Apple’s iOS 5 presentation on Monday, because when Apple talks mobile operating system updates, a new version of the iPhone isn’t that far behind.

The last three Worldwide Developers Conferences have certainly exhibited a familiar pattern:

That’s three iPhone announcements in as many WWDCs. It doesn’t require too much of a leap in logic to see how Apple could make it four straight.

Then again, attentive readers and those with a keen interest in Apple history will immediately spot the difference between the last three WWDC keynotes and this year’s installment. The 2008, 2009, and 2010 editions featured recaps of the planned iOS update—in all three cases, Apple had already previewed the new version of the operating system at a separate press event held months earlier. This time around, it’s the first we’re hearing about iOS 5, and if we’re sticking to our past-is-prologue theme, that would mean a new iPhone later this summer at the earliest. By this way of thinking, Apple could even unite the iPhone and iPod touch hardware upgrades—after all, they use the same operating system—and introduce both at the company’s traditional fall music event.

There’s another wrinkle with this year’s WWDC. In the past, Apple has only had to introduce one type of phone to run on AT&T’s GSM network. Starting in February, though, the company added Verizon as a service provider in the U.S. meaning it had to produce an entirely different iPhone model to run on that carrier's CDMA network. Having different flavors of iPhone was a compromise Apple was willing to make to expand its customer base, but it's probably not something the company wants to maintain long term. Already, GSM-based iPhones are running iOS 4.3.3, while the CDMA-friendly models are still at version 4.2.8—that sort of fragmentation is all well and good for Android users, but it's anathema to the way Apple runs things. A major hardware update may have to wait until Apple builds one that’s compatible with both AT&T and Verizon networks.

The fact that Apple broke a three-year precedent and didn’t hold a spring iOS event suggests that the pace of development might be slowing down by design. That would hardly be out of step with how Apple handles new operating systems. You may recall that after yearly updates to OS X for its first few years of existence, Apple announced in 2004 it was dialing back the pace of Mac OS development to a less frenetic clip. That was three years after OS X’s 2001 debut; maybe we’ve reached the same point with the iOS platform where annual overhauls aren’t as necessary as before.

Still, a few external factors make me think that it would be better for the company to roll out a new version of the iPhone sooner rather than later. Not that Cupertino takes it cues from other companies (or from me, for that matter), but surely Apple executives notice the steady stream of smartphones that have hit the market since the last time they introduced a model. I can’t imagine the company willingly sitting on the sidelines while Android phones continue to dot the landscape. More to the point, any iPhone 3G owners who picked up their models in the early months of 2009 are now blessedly free of their AT&T contracts. With a growing number of iOS features unavailable to older phones, those users will be looking to upgrade to a new model—and Apple would do well not to tell them to cool their heels for the next few months as the next iPhone moves from the drawing board to retail shelves. Finally, it doesn’t really fit into Apple’s m.o. to unveil a new operating system without also rolling out hardware specifically designed to exploit its new features to the fullest.

Apple is likely to stick to its pre-announced script for WWDC, talking only about iCloud, Lion, and iOS 5, and it will still be a feature-packed morning. But there's always that One More Thing. A new iPhone may be improbable for all the reasons listed above, but if Steve Jobs happens to have one up his sleeve on Monday, it wouldn’t necessarily surprise me.

[ executive editor Philip Michaels has an unsettling habit of being wrong in public about these kind of predictions.]

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