GIZMOS

10.03.11

Will Apple Make Magic Again?

As they await a big presentation on Tuesday, Apple fans are in a frenzy of excitement. Dan Lyons surveys the speculation about the first iPhone of the post–Steve Jobs era.

Can Apple still find ways to blow everyone away with a new iPhone that is so magical and sexy—and so ahead of all the other companies in the market—that people will start lining up days in advance to get one?

That’s one big question for Tuesday’s event at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. But the event also marks the start of a new era for the company, since it’s the first time that Tim Cook will hold center stage as Apple’s CEO.

Cook joined Apple in 1998 and previously was chief operating officer. He took over as CEO in August after cofounder Steve Jobs resigned for health reasons. Jobs is not expected to attend the Tuesday event.

As for the products, just the idea of a new batch of gleaming, shiny iToys has spun the geeky world of tech bloggers and Apple fanboys into a frenzy of speculation. They’re chasing down leaked photos, scouring through SKU listings at various carriers, and basically falling over each other trying to figure out what Apple will announce.

Some have even gone looking for (and believing they’ve found) cryptic clues that they believe might be hidden in the invitation that Apple sent out, in a kind of techie version of the Da Vinci Code. Others have found photos of new cases that they believe belong to the iPhone 5 and have tried to extrapolate what the new device looks like based on the case.

One outfit in Austria went even farther into crazy-fanboy territory. It gathered up rumors, hints, and other bits of speculation, then used that information to create a three-dimensional computer model of what the iPhone 5 might look like—then, from that model, built an actual prototype out of aluminum.

People always get a little nuts about Apple products. But the frenzy this time is a little more extreme than usual. That’s partly because people have been waiting a long time for Apple to roll out this new phone, as the current iPhone 4 has been on the market for 15 months. In the past, Apple has released a new model every summer. Some were hoping to see the new phone a few months ago and were disappointed when it didn’t arrive.

Now the mood seems to be that if you’ve kept us waiting extra long, you’d better have something really amazing up your sleeve.

Some say Apple will introduce two models: a high-end, state-of-the-art iPhone 5 with all the latest bells and whistles, and a low-end phone that’s basically a stripped-down iPhone 4.

No matter what Apple introduces, some analysts are already predicting that the new device will generate record sales, in part because of all the pent-up demand and hype, and shatter Apple’s previous one-day record of 1.7 million iPhones sold.

In March, Apple announced it had sold 100 million iPhones since introducing the product in 2007. In the quarter that ended in June, it sold 20 million more, an increase of 142 percent year over year, which helped drive the company to record sales and earnings.

That’s a tough act to follow. Some expect to see a new model, the iPhone 5, that will be thinner than the iPhone 4 but with a bigger screen, an eight-megapixel camera, and the dual-core A5 processor that is used in the iPad 2, with a new top model that has 64 gigabytes of storage. There’s been speculation that the iPhone 5 will have a “teardrop” shape, meaning it’s thicker on one end than on the other. Others predict a phone that will have newer guts (faster chip, more storage, better camera) but will look pretty much the same as the iPhone 4.

Still others say Apple will introduce two models: a high-end, state-of-the-art iPhone 5 with all the latest bells and whistles, and a low-end “iPhone 4S” (or possibly “iPhone 4 Plus”) that is basically an updated iPhone 4, stripped down and sold at a very low price point.

Other expected highlights:

WORLD PHONE: Rumor has it the new iPhone will run on both GSM and CDMA networks, making it a “world phone.” Right now, there are different models for the two kinds of mobile-phone networks.

4G OR NOT 4G? Some say Apple will not support speedy LTE 4G networks in the new model. But there’s a rumor, leaked out of China, that the new iPhone will support the HSPA+ networking standard, which is faster than 3G and sometimes gets marketed as 4G. If that’s true, you’ll get blazing data speeds on carriers that use HSPA+, like AT&T.

VOICE COMMANDS: In 2010 Apple acquired a company called Siri, which does voice recognition. Supposedly we’re now going to see what that was all about, as Apple introduces a mind-blowing voice-command system, called Assistant, in the new iPhone. The blog 9to5Mac calls it “the biggest game-changer in this year’s iPhone.”

NEW CARRIERS: Rumor is that Sprint will finally get the iPhone in the U.S. and may offer unlimited data plans.

THE CLOUD: Apple has already announced its Internet-based storage service, called iCloud, as well as a new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 5, which will run on the new iPhone. It’s likely that these will get rolled out tomorrow and that the new phone will be designed to work seamlessly with iCloud.

Here’s a roundup of some other speculation about Tuesday’s event from tech pundits:

ROBERT SCOBLE says there will be a huge partnership with Facebook that will change the meaning of life forever on the planet. Or something like that.

MG SIEGLER of TechCrunch says Facebook will finally introduce its long-awaited app for the iPad, as well as a mobile application platform (he calls it “Project Spartan”) that will run apps inside a browser using HTML5, a new Web standard.

JOHN GRUBER of Daring Fireball says he suspects there will be only one new model, not two. And he doubts the new phone will have a teardrop shape, because that would not be symmetrical, and “symmetry is a hallmark of Apple’s iOS devices to date.”

For some longtime Apple watchers, the performance of Tim Cook will be almost as interesting as the products themselves. Cook is known as an operational genius, a master of supply-chain logistics whose shrewd negotiations with suppliers have given Apple a big advantage over its rivals. But he is not considered a charismatic visionary like Jobs. And while he’s a good public speaker, he’s not the masterful showman his predecessor was.

It’s easy to underestimate Cook, if only because he has spent years living in the shadow of Steve Jobs. Like most Apple fans, I’m hoping his first appearance as CEO goes well for him, and that Apple still has the power to dazzle us with its products. Fingers crossed.