This seems head-slappingly obvious to me but I don’t see anyone talking about it. So let me explain my thinking, and at the end maybe you’ll slap your head too.
1. The ‘5s’ (but it won’t be called that), similar to the 5 but with bumped specs.
2. The Big iPhone, 2.8 inches wide instead of 2.3, and up to 6 inches tall.
3. The free iPhone similar to the 5 but with a lower resolution screen.
4. It is all because of ‘lightning’.
There are lots of analysts who say that Apple needs to come out with a cheaper iPhone. Apparently completely oblivious to the fact that there is a cheaper iPhone (the previous two models, the most recent discounted substantially and the next older one free with contract).
Anyone actually paying attention to Apple knows this is stupid analysis, because there has been a cheaper iPhone on the market for years, and a free-with-contract iPhone on the market for many years too. They get ignored though because they are the ‘old’ iPhone models, the previous two years worth. This does not actually matter, since every phone back to the 3Gs can run the latest iOS version perfectly well. It is confusing enough to the punditry that they don’t see it.
This year is unique though. This is the year that Apple is in a hurry to kill the old connector and move everything over to the ‘lightning’ connector. This is a good move, having two standards out there is annoying. They knew it would be, enough so that they moved to update the iPad immediately last fall when the new connector was revealed. Changing the connector is not a simple swap and requires enough re-design of the electronics to warrant a new design for the entire package.
So given that they have to introduce a new connector anyway this would be the year to wipe out the old models. So I take it as given that as soon as the next iPhone is introduced, the 4s will be gone, not shifted to the free-with-contract slot the 2nd oldest phone would normally occupy. It may also ship sooner rather than later.
There is a bonus here for Apple. Instead of having the fairly pricey component list of the 4S in the cheapest slot they can move to a lower priced bill of materials. So we’ll get a ‘free’ iPhone, with a 4S equivalent speed processor on a die shrink, lightning, and other changes with some new name. I would not be surprised if it is *not* retina. This would keep the cost down and help Apple maintain real margin at a much lower price point. Possibly non-retina but with the longer aspect ratio of the iPhone 5 screen.
Second we’ll get a big iPhone. The shape and size of this is easy to figure out. Just as it was easy to figure out the size of the iPad mini, just in the other direction. The math for the mini was this: Take the screen resolution of the non-retina iPad and move those pixels to the same display material that is used in the iPhone 4. The big phone will work the same way; take the screen resolution of the iPhone 4 and up (325ppi), and move it to the material used in the retina iPad (264ppi).
This seems obvious once you give it a minute of thought. For the same reason the tap target size move from iPad to iPad mini worked fine it will work fine in the opposite direction without being ludicrous looking. In fact it will become very comfortable. The primary advantages to users of this larger size will be increased battery size and easier to see type. This will be hugely popular with a broad segment of the market.
The rough math gets you a phone that is 6 inches high and 2.8 inches wide, bigger than the Galaxy and Nexus 4. It will of course be the same thickness (0.3 inches) or thinner compared to the iPhone 5 and have 50–70% more battery. A phone that tall seems silly to me, and if prototypes feel silly in fact then don’t be surprised to see a larger screen with the same aspect ratio as phones prior to the 5.
And of course we’ll get the new phone, the ‘5S’ or more likely the ‘new iPhone’ for 2013. Don’t expect anything radical, just more continuous improving over the specs of the previous model; faster/more cores cpu, more ram, more storage.
Given the spread in models and names happening it would make some sense for the naming convention of phones to change this year. Dropping the number, as they have for the iPad last year, and for the Mac lines years ago, will look obvious in retrospect and will happen with this next rev.
So those are the three phones; all with lightning, two ‘normal’ sized phones, one probably not retina, and one big phone, all ‘new’ models. I won’t be surprised to see at least the cheapest one come in multiple colors similar to the last iPod touch rev.
Of course I could be completely wrong about all of this, there are no doubt economic and political forces at work within Apple at the scale they’re operating now that are beyond the ken of anyone outside it.