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On Apple Rumors: A Tale of Two iPhones?

In the time I spent working for Apple Retail, I was constantly asked about rumored product releases, and more often than not, the customer asking would fail to believe that we employees didn’t have any sort of advanced knowledge. That really was the case, and even if we did know something, we couldn’t tell them anyway, so why bother asking?

I guess because that wasn’t 100% true.

The thing is, while we almost never had advanced knowledge confirming new products, we were all engrossed by the Mac news/rumor sites. Although we were contractually obligated not to contribute to them, nothing stopped us from talking and speculating to one another during lunch or at the bar after work. As an employee, you get to know Apple’s psychology pretty well, and it was often easy to tell which stories were real and which were fake.

So while we didn’t officially know what was coming down the pipeline, it was often the case that we “knew,” but we still couldn’t talk about it. There is a certain amount of buzz to rumors combined with timing and the company’s actions that would make it clear that something was up.

Recently sites have been talking about the next iPhone being only a mild upgrade and referring to it as the “iPhone 4S”. For as long as it has been around, I’ve HATED this rumor.

There seems to be an assumption that because there was an iPhone 3Gs to follow iPhone 3G that Apple is going to repeat this pattern and even call it the “iPhone 4S”. The major flaw in this conclusion is so obvious it boggles my mind that sites miss it.

The iPhone 4’s “4” in its branding is different than the 3G’s “3”. The 4 in the iPhone 4 represents it being the fourth model of iPhone, whereas the 3 in the iPhone 3G represents the 3G speed of its connection.

Apple is a company tightly fixated on branding. Even if the next upgrade were a small one they simply wouldn’t just slap an “s” on the end of the “iPhone 4” and call it a day instead of releasing an iPhone 5. Regardless of what the marketing name would be, it would still be the 5th model of the phone. They especially wouldn’t then just call the next phone the “iPhone 5” the following year as it would actually be the 6th version and so on. The logic is broken.

Branding aside, it also seems clear to me that after waiting more than a year, Apple’s going to do more than a modest bump to the iPhone. While the iPhone 4 is doing exceptionally well after 15 months on the market, the changes will need to be significant if only to keep consumers interested and competitors behind. The rumors of a larger screen, better camera, and a tapered form factor seem to gel with that.

Meanwhile, the now two-year-old iPhone 3GS is the second best selling phone on the market. It is clear Apple benefits from giving customers the choice of a lower-priced option. This one-two punch has served them well at retaining market share in the face of Android so the logical conclusion would be that an iPhone 5 will be announced this fall, and Apple will keep the iPhone 4 around discounted like they did the 3GS.

But the rumor is that the next iPhone is also now coming to Sprint and T-Mobile too, which would make sense. The problem is T-Mobile’s 3G network uses a different frequency than AT&T, so if Apple wants to support them, they need to introduce either a separate phone for their network or a phone with a chip that is compatible with both networks. Meaning they’d have to manufacture three different iPhone 5s for the 4 different carriers, and that’s not counting storage sizes or colors and this still leaves them without a low-cost option on T-Mobile’s network.

Then I start thinking about this and the fact that before the Verizon iPhone 4 was launched, there were all sorts of antenna redesigns that leaked that contained SIM card slots, which the Verizon phone does not and now suddenly similar things are showing up again.

All signs seem to be pointing at it, but no one seems to notice. My gut says that Apple is planning to launch not one, but two new iPhones this fall, and both will be available on all four major US carriers. I believe we will see a mildly revamped iPhone 4 and an “all-new” iPhone 5.

Apple will, however downplay the 4’s revamp with a comment like “the iPhone 4 has proven to be the most popular phone in history, and it’s not slowing down so today we’re making it available to T-Mobile and Sprint customers too”. No new name, and no upgraded specs, they’ll want the press to focus on the iPhone 5, not a bunch of internal changes to a 15-month-old device.

How will they do this? Instead of individual models for individual carriers, I believe that both the revised four and the new five will have both CDMA and GSM chips in them will be compatible with all four carriers right out of the box.

Externally this does away with customer confusion as most people don’t know/understand/care about the differences between cellular networks and frequencies; they simply want to buy a phone and have it work. Secondly, this dramatically simplifies their product line, inventory, and manufacturing and allows them to further leverage the economies of scale that CEO Tim Cook so masterfully does already.

Wouldn’t be half bad for his first public move as CEO either.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.