The Next iPhone

In the summer of 1994, I landed a college internship as a programmer at a DOS/Windows development shop. There were maybe 20 full-time programmers on the team, and, when I joined, they were nearing the end of a two-year-long project to port their flagship DOS app to Windows. Several of the programmers were quite good, but one guy in particular had a genuine superpower: he could fix five times more bugs per day than anyone else. At the end of a major development project, pretty much all that’s left to do is fix bugs.

So, that guy was the first one on the team to get a Pentium-based machine, running at, if I recall correctly, 90 MHz. (The rest of us all had 486-based machines.) A few hours after he’d started using the new machine, word started to spread about just how fast it was. “You should see him do a build.” Soon there were a dozen of us crowded into his office, marveling, maybe even slobbering, at the speed of his C compiler’s progress bar.

A new computer almost always feels faster than the one it replaces. In the old days, though, every few years you’d get a computer with not just a faster processor but a next-generation processor, and the resulting performance increase was dramatic. For the Mac, those were bumps like the first 68030s and 68040s, or the first batch of PowerPCs. For the PC, the 386, 486, and Pentium.

Based on information from informed sources, I believe the processor in the next-generation iPhone is going to be that kind of upgrade.

The original EDGE iPhone and iPhone 3G use the same 400 MHz processor. Let’s say the rumors are right — and I believe they are — that the next-generation iPhone’s CPU will be running at 600 MHz. In the same way that, say, a 90 MHz Pentium was more than 1.5 times as fast as a 60 MHz 486, the 600 MHz CPU in the next iPhone will be more than 1.5 times as fast as the current 400 MHz iPhone CPU.

Much of what the iPhone does now is constrained by its CPU. App launching speed, for one thing — faster app launching should make it feel more like switching between apps and less like quitting/relaunching them. Web page rendering is also significantly constrained by the CPU. When I first used NetShare I was amazed at how fast Safari on my MacBook Pro could render web pages using the iPhone’s cell network connection. Web page rendering on current iPhones is hindered at least as much, if not more, by the CPU than by the speed of the 3G network.

More RAM will significantly help performance, too, and I believe the new iPhones will sport 256 MB of memory, up from the 128 MB in all current models. Prices will stay the same — $199 and $299 — but storage will increase to 16 and 32 GB. The improved performance will be one of the major new features that Apple will tout, but the only tech specs Apple will publish will be the storage capacities — just as with previous iPhones and iPod Touches Apple won’t publish any specific technical information regarding RAM or the CPU. (The CPU in particular, I believe, is something Apple regards as secret sauce.)

Industrial design changes will be subtle, perhaps very subtle. I expect that cases designed for the iPhone 3G will continue to fit the new iPhone, and that the only colors will remain black and white.

Two other significant internal additions frequently mentioned in rumors are indeed accurate: a magnetometer (a.k.a. a compass) and an improved camera that will shoot video (and improved still images, thanks to an auto-focus lens; the existing iPhone camera lens is fixed-focus). Video, in fact, will be one of the major features Apple plans to tout regarding the new model.

Last week when I linked to Cabel Sasser’s review of the Canon SD960, I wrote this regarding his praise for the camera’s HD video capability:

I like my Flip, but I think the whole Flip class of pocket video cameras is ultimately doomed — the distinction between “still” and “video” cameras is quickly disappearing. Soon they’ll just be “cameras” that do both.

It occurs to me now that Flip-style dedicated video cameras are in fact getting pinched on two sides: on the high end by video-capable “still” cameras, and on the low end by video-capable mobile phones. The next generation iPhone is going make this trend clear. What the new iPhone’s video capabilities might lack in terms of image and sound quality will be made up for by two things: convenience and software. Convenience in that the best camera is the one you have with you, and if you’ve always got your iPhone, you’ve always got a camera; software in that iPhone OS 3.0 is set to include basic video editing (think: selecting just the good parts) and uploading features that regular cameras, which aren’t computers and which aren’t networked, just can’t match. For many casual use cases, being able to upload short clips to the web directly from your iPhone immediately after shooting the footage trumps whatever image quality advantages a camera like a Flip might hold.

So if I were a betting man, here’s how I’d handicap expectations for the WWDC keynote:

Would Wager Heavily Upon: A next-generation iPhone to be released in July, with roughly double the CPU horsepower and an improved video-capable camera, with 16 and 32 GB storage capacities.

Would Wager a Small Amount Upon: New iPhone prices at $199/299 for 16/32 GB; 256 MB RAM on new iPhones; existing stock of current iPhone 3Gs sold at a discount through Apple’s web site. (Also, in Mac news, I’d bet a small amount on a refresh to Apple’s notebook lineup, with a branding change where the “MacBook Pro” designation is used for all aluminum models,1 and just plain non-Pro “MacBook” is used for plastic models.)

Would Wager a Sandwich Upon: Improved battery life for the new iPhone, despite the beefier CPU.

Would Wager Heavily Against: Anything at all related to the in-the-works tablet thingmajig. Not going to happen at WWDC.

Would Not Wager Upon, But, Well, I’ve Heard Things: An “iPhone Mini”, with hardware roughly three-fourths the height and width of existing iPhones. I expect to see something along these lines sooner than later, but I do not believe it’s going to debut this July alongside the new flagship iPhones.

  1. Except for the MacBook Air. ↩︎