Apple has, apparently, sent out invitations to an iPhone-related event on October 4. John Gruber says that someone has told him that there will only be one new phone (which is almost certainly accurate). Of course it’s entirely possible that the existing iPhone 4 will become the entry-level phone with 8GB of storage which would kind of qualify as a “new” phone.
The simplest option, which would be underwhelming but still very good, would simply be an A5-based iPhone 4, which could presumably be thinner and lighter (as the iPad2 relative to the iPad) or have even better battery life. If thinner and lighter then expect the camera to be inferior in at least some respect (e.g. sharpness or low light capability) owing to the lack of room. The general consensus seems to be that it will be thinner but have a slightly larger screen.
Apple doesn’t iterate its physical designs lightly. Samsung et al may be able to deliver a dizzying array of form factors on a monthly basis, but Apple takes care over its designs and only changes them rarely. I would not be at all surprised if the new iPhone is very close in appearance to the model it replaces — but “Antennagate” might argue for some more dramatic change. Also, a lot of us would like a less frictionless and easily broken device (mine is in near mint condition, but my wife’s is shattered on both sides).
iOS5. One thing that hasn’t been getting much attention is that while it’s obvious iOS5 will be released, there remain some credible rumors that it will feature as-yet-unrevealed features. Nuance voice recognition and speech synthesis is one possibility. Facebook integration (groan) is another.
A6. Perhaps the most likely surprise would be that the iPhone 5 skips the A5 (which is made by Samsung) in favor of a more advanced — or simply different — chip. This could be purely out of spite (although to ascribe a giant corporation’s behavior to an emotional root is generally naive), strategic based on Samsung’s clear intent to leverage the capabilities and scale it gets from supplying Apple to compete against Apple, or strategic based on Apple’s supply chain problems earlier this year with the iPad2 (was the A5 one of the bottlenecks?).
Free with plan. A “free with plan” iPhone wouldn’t have to be a new product to have a huge impact. Apple is pretty close now (I’ve seen the 3GS offered at under $40 with plan). The real problem here is that if we’re only getting one new phone then we’re almost certainly not getting a cheap model that can connect to networks other than AT&T, Verizon, and kind-of with T-Mobile.
iPod Touch replacement is the iPhone4. An iPhone 4 sold at a reasonable (sub $300) price without any plan requirement as an iPod Touch replacement would be truly awesome. (As a developer I’d actually love to see Android handsets along the same lines, but the only plan-free Android handsets I see are horribly expensive or rubbish, certainly nowhere near as nice as a two year old iPod Touch.)
Thunderbolt Support would be damn cool but probably suicidal. Of course the cables are insanely expensive still, there’s no easy way to retrofit support into older computers (which most of us have), and it’s not Apple’s style to provide two connection options when one will almost do (we still have a bunch of useless FireWire-to-iPod accessories lying around, for example).
A serious camera option is my favorite crazy idea. Apple could license a sensor and lens mount such as Olympus’s M4/3 or Nikon’s CX system (the latter would be doable with little increase in thickness — and the Nikon J1 is smaller in other dimensions than an iPhone). It might not even be positioned as an iPhone (iTake? iMage?). Such a device would disrupt the camera industry (one of the few consumer electronics industries still actually shipping single-purpose devices and making some money), sucking the money out of its heart the way the iPhone did to smart phones and the iPod did to “Hi Fi”. (Remember when companies like Bose, B&O, and Pioneer were “cool” and sold more than high-end headphones and iPod docks?)
Supposedly the digital still market is projected to reach $43.5B per year by 2015, which presumably means it’s quite a bit smaller right now. Even so, that’s not chump change, and presumably there’s some profit in there somewhere. (Of course, annihilating the camera companies could be a bit self-defeating for computer hardware companies, since they also make tools necessary for chip fabrication.)
Inertial Locator. It seems as though, having embraced GPS, the world has forgotten about the inertial locater, a device (long since reduced to a tiny solid-state component) that determines your position relative to a last known place. Adding an inertial locator to the iPhone would allow it to have a good idea of where it was inside buildings and other places GPS is no good, and also reduce the need to use the GPS system to locate itself (thus allowing more precise tracking of one’s location with less battery power). And even nicer, it wouldn’t require new APIs — so existing location-aware software would simply work better immediately.
Standardized case-with-game-controller. Hey, I can dream can’t I?
A stupidly rugged iPhone for the ages. Textured steel and/or rubber exterior designed to age gracefully, with weather seals and recessed screen. Now that computers don’t become obsolete every 18 months how about we start design shit to last? How many folks with kids would jump all over this? (Literally!)