Predicting the features of the next iPhone has become one of the great bloodsports of the internet age, which is just the way Apple likes it. Historically Apple has set the trends which others followed, but this time around the new iPhone has no choice but to respond to the challenge laid down by Android superphones such as Samsung's sleek Galaxy S III.
While Apple and Samsung battle over hardware designs, the simmering war with Google is also hotting up. The iPhone is set to ditch tight integration with several key Google services as part of the iOS6 software update, stepping up hostilities with Android's backer.
So what do we know about the iPhone 5? Nothing for certain, thanks to Apple's veil of secrecy and tendency to strategically leak disinformation. Right now it's a question of what's probable, what's possible and what we'd prefer to see.
The new game-changer
So what does the iPhone 5 need in order to put Samsung back in the box? The smart money is on a bigger screen and faster mobile broadband, but Apple doesn't want to simply play catch up. Apple will be looking for a game-changer which makes the iOS ecosystem more attractive than ever.
It's quite possible the iPhone 5 will simply be called "the new iPhone", but let's stick with numbers for the sake of convenience. History would suggest the iPhone 5 will feature the dual-core A5X processor introduced with the iPad 3, but Apple could instead opt for the improved power efficiency of the second generation A5 processor which is built on a 32nm fabrication process.This second-gen A5 chip significantly boosted the iPad 2's battery life and curbed heat output. It may be required to support the raft of hardware changes we're expecting to see with the iPhone 5.
One of the biggest demands on the iPhone 5's battery will likely come from a larger screen. Android's love affair with expanses of screen real estate is putting significant pressure on Apple to boost the iPhone's screen size. Apple diehards accustomed to the iPhone's screen might be content with 3.5 inches, but Android's extra screen real estate is certainly alluring to new smartphone buyers.
It's possible Apple could make the new iPhone taller but not wider, increasing the screen size while allowing the iPhone 5 to remain compatible with some earlier iPhone accessories. But there's also talk of Apple switching to a smaller connector. Abandoning the 30-pin connector will frustrate Apple lovers with a home full of iGadgets and accessories, although it's likely to be a moot point if Apple also changes the size and shape of the iPhone.
The iPhone 5 will likely follow the iPad 3's lead and support high-speed LTE mobile broadband, which will also have an impact on battery life. The big question is whether Apple will add 1800 MHz support for compatibility with Telstra's LTE network (Korea's demand for an 800/1800 LTE iPhone could seal the deal). We've already seen several Android smartphones and tablets supporting LTE in Australia, although we were denied an LTE-compatible Galaxy S III.
You can also expect Apple to boost the resolution of the rear and perhaps front camera, but people won't get excited over that. Rather than play catch up, Apple needs a new killer feature in order to steal the limelight from Samsung. The iPhone's early success showed that most people are more interested in usability than in numbers on a spec sheet. They care about how a smartphone can make their life easier.
Apple's talking personal assistant Siri was the crowning usability feature of the iPhone 4S and iOS5. Rivals have emerged but improvements to Siri could see Apple market it as the killer feature of the iPhone 5. Apple is expanding Siri's capabilities and tightening integration with other phone features, plus it's granting Siri access to a wider range of third-party services.
Keep an eye on NFC
A bigger, faster iPhone with a revamped Siri could be enough for Apple to stand toe-to-toe with Samsung. But Apple's style is to lead with a game-changer such as Siri on the iPhone 4S. The real game-changer with the iPhone 5 could come from tapping into the full potential of Near Field Communications.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Apple has a history of embracing existing technologies and tweaking them to win mainstream acceptance. The NFC short-range wireless communications technology is ripe for the picking, not just for use with Point of Sale systems but also for letting iPhone owners interact with their wider environment.
Apple could integrate NFC with the iTunes payment system as well as the e-wallet "Passport" features to be introduced with iOS6. Passport is designed to hold digital documents such as concert tickets and boarding passes. This would make the iPhone 5 much more than simply a virtual credit card, it would become people's primary way of interacting with the world around them.
While supposedly making people's lives easier, it would also give Apple more leverage as it attempts to muscle into new markets such as electronic payments, ticketing, coupons, loyalty programs and secure access.
Considering Apple’s claim to a 30 per cent cut of iTunes app sales and in-app purchases, a slice of the e-credentials market would seem a tempting proposition for Cupertino. Even if it initially lacked NFC compatibility, such features would certainly up the ante in the fight with Samsung.
More importantly, the ability for the iPhone to act as a digital passport would be a powerful weapon in Apple's battle with the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook to be our de facto gateway to the world.