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10/3/2011
12:13 PM
Eric Zeman
Eric Zeman
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Apple iPhone: Wholesale Refresh Or No?

Will Apple announce a brand-new device, or just a spec'd up version of the iPhone 4?

What if Apple barely updates the existing iPhone 4 Tuesday and just slaps a new name on it? Will people still line up in hordes to buy it? Let's recap what Apple has done in years past.

Apple has shown a propensity to offer minimal updates to its iPhone hardware year-to-year. The first iPhone went on sale in June 2007. It had an EDGE radio, a 3.5-inch display, limited Bluetooth functions, no video capture, a crummy 2-megapixel camera, and somewhat crashy software. A year later, Apple announced the iPhone 3G. It was not vastly different. The shape was changed a bit, and it was given a 3G radio. Other than that, most specs remained the same or similar.

The same iterative update was applied to iPhone 3GS, which was announced in 2009. When compared to the iPhone 3G, it had a slightly faster processor, bumped the camera from 2-megapixels to 3.2-megapixels, and increased the speeds of the 3G radio. Aside from these changes, nothing else was updated. The iPhone 3GS even shared an identical size and shape with the iPhone 3G.

[The mobile security landscape is changing. Learn more: Mobile Security's Future: 4 Expert Predictions.]

The iPhone 4, announced in 2010, was the first major redesign of the iPhone since 2008. It came in a completely new casing, increased the camera to 5 megapixels, bumped the processor again to 1 GHz, added better graphics support, and doubled the quality of the display (though the dimensions of the display remained the same).

Apple has sold tens of millions of iPhone 4s.

A day before Apple is primed to announce the next-generation iPhone, myriad reports suggest that the device will look largely the same as the current iPhone 4--though the guts will be updated. Most people expect the processor to be bumped from the single-core 1-GHz A4 to the dual-core 1-GHz A5; the camera to be improved from 5-megapixels to 8-megapixels; and the display to be increased in size to four inches. It may also gain faster-still wireless broadband, though it is not expected to make the jump to 4G.

As enticing as some of these changes are, are they enough to rouse the iPhone faithful and get them into stores come the first day of sales? Given the reaction of Apple iPhone fans over the years, whatever Apple announces on October 4 it is sure to sell like hotcakes.

What's perhaps most interesting is that leaks over the weekend point to the release of a cheaper iPhone 4 and a more capable iPhone 4S. Each year, Apple has discounted the previous year's model to $99, while filling the $199 and $299 price points with new hardware. This gives Apple a low-cost alternative as well as the higher-end offerings.

If Apple keeps the iPhone 4 as is--or even if it reduces the storage capacity to 8 GB--it will still be an attractive device at $99. Apple can then price the new hardware (iPhone 4S? iPhone 5?) at its usual $199 and $299 prices and keep its typical plan in place. Some of the leaks over the weekend point to the possibility of a 64-GB iPhone 4S, which might have a sale price of $399.

Apple will surely get dinged pretty hard if the new iPhone, which it has taken longer to bring to market, is merely an improved iPhone 4--especially considering the strides the competition has taken since the iPhone 4's 2010 debut.

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