Analysts set high expectations for iPhone 5 today

'No matter what it has, it's going to have an enormous launch,' says one expert

One thing's certain, analysts said today: Just hours from now, Apple will hit a home run when it unveils its next iPhone.

Beyond that, consensus among the experts was as hard to reach as a coterie from the United Nations agreeing on what to have for lunch in New York City.

Most believed that the Apple rumor mill, never shy about generating Amazing Kreskinian predictions, had more or less nailed it, and that there would be few major surprises. But each voiced different expectations, whether subtleties appreciated only after time, or almost invisible changes in the hardware, or how the new Apple smartphone may alter the competitive landscape.

But in the end, said one analyst, their expectations and predictions, or really anyone's, won't count.

"It kind of doesn't matter, does it?" said Van Baker of Gartner. "No matter what it has, it's still going to have an enormous launch."

Wall Street agrees. Estimates of pre-sales over the first three days -- likely to start Friday and run over the weekend -- came in as high as 6 million, or 50% more than the iPhone 4S' opening.

Big sales are a given, said the analysts. So are some of the specifics of what Apple will show.

"A lot are no-brainers," said Charles Golvin of Forrester, ticking off a litany of features he's betting the new iPhone will sport.

That unanimous list included support for mobile carriers' faster LTE networks, a larger form factor retains the iPhone 4S' width but is stretched in height to accommodate a 4-in. displays, a faster Apple-designed processor, a bigger battery and a new design that boasts a different look based on a unibody aluminum case.

Those are not new to smartphones, and could be read as a sign of Apple playing catch-up. Golvin acknowledged that, but noted it stems from the iPhone's once-a-year release cycle, while rivals, such as Samsung, pour out model after model during a 12-month span.

"Because Apple is on a very regimented release cycle, it's always playing a game of leapfrog with the competition," Golvin said. "And although it sometimes positions catch-up features as more innovative than they really are, Apple usually implements those features in a way so that they're much more easily accessible to consumers."

LTE, larger screen, faster processor: Everyone is assuming the iPhone 5 -- if that is its name today -- will have those. But what else, if not at the level of Apple's famous "One more thing," will the iPhone 5 offer?

"What I look for is innovating the overall user experience, not adding tech for tech's sake," said Carolina Milanesi, a Gartner analyst who covers Apple. "The experience is the most profitable part of the iPhone," she argued. "It results in higher customer loyalty and more sales overall."

Milanesi hoped to see the larger screen, but not only for the expanded space. "How does it affect the clarity of the screen, does the keyboard layout take advantage of it, what's the sensitivity of the screen? And maybe it's time to revamp the actual layout of the screen to make more sense of the apps we have."

Golvin wanted to hear -- and see -- major improvements in the iPhone's audio and its cameras, citing competitors like HTC and Nokia, which have handsets that thump the iPhone on some specs.

"Apple might do something to boost the audio fidelity of the device, but how that manifests itself, I don't know," Golvin said. "And it could make a lot of changes in imaging, which is very, very important to users." Among such changes, Golvin cited increased resolution on both the front- and rear-facing cameras, and image stabilization.

Aaron Vronko, CEO of Michigan-based Rapid Repair, a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for the iPhone and iPad, found a hint of something close to his fix-it heart.

"Instead of using portholes with a fine mesh screen for the microphone and speaker on the bottom, they will switch to a grill integrated with the aluminum shell," said Vronko, basing his bet on leaked photos that purported to show the next iPhone. "We've seen a significant number of people over the last couple of years who complain that their speaker or microphone has gone bad [but] it just turned out to be a plugged mesh screen."

Interestingly, all the analysts mentioned NFC (near-field communications), a technology that's gotten some iPhone rumor attention, but not enough to call it a done deal.

NFC lets mobile device owners wave a phone over a short-range wireless receiver or tap the device to make a purchase, or bring a pair of compliant devices close to each other to transfer data or sync content. The practice is widespread in Japan and has gained momentum in Europe, but adoption in the U.S. has been sluggish.

Vronko had the most unusual take on NFC and the iPhone 5.

"It's interesting, but it hasn't hit prime time," Vronko said. "In my experience, Apple wants to be either at the leading edge, and if it can't, then they wait until a technology is fully formed. But I don't think Apple wants to be too far behind the curve. They could actually put the [NFC radio] chip in it but leave it disabled."

In Vronko's scenario, Apple would wait until next year to jump into NFC-based payments, when the technology has another 12 months to get off the ground. The advantage of adding a chip now that it doesn't use, said Vronko, is that it would create a pool of millions who would be ready to tap-and-pay when Apple does pull the trigger.

Colvin wouldn't hear of it. "If they invest in the hardware, it will be used," he countered, noting that iOS 6's Passbook, a ticket, boarding pass and coupon manager, could be a jumping-off point for electronic payments.

Baker of Gartner talked about NFC, too, but he was very skeptical about its chances today.

"I'm really curious about NFC," Baker admitted. "But it's not going to happen anytime soon on the iPhone. There are competing standards, questionable support from issuing banks and card companies, and it takes significant investment on the part of retailers, who are ill-equipped to do that right now. And what's the value proposition for the user? How hard is it to take a [credit] card out of a wallet? I can see Apple doing it at some point, but only when they have all the ducks in a row."

Also of interest to the analysts was how Apple would treat the older iPhones, the iPhone 4S from 2011 and 2010's iPhone 4.

Last year, Apple broke with tradition and retained the previous two generations -- the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 3GS -- selling the previous year's model for $99 and giving away the one before that.

Baker, Golvin and Milanesi all assume that Apple will follow the same practice this cycle, retaining both the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S, the former free with a two-year contract, the latter at $99.

"By the time they got the 3GS to free, it was awfully long in the tooth," said Baker. "The 4 and 4S are much more viable models that could expand Apple's share pretty significantly."

Apple will start its event today at 10 a.m. PDT.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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