Leaked next-gen iPhone 'real deal,' says expert

Fit-and-finish, timing make it likely Gizmodo's iPhone is what Apple will sell this summer

The iPhone lost by Apple, or stolen from the company, is probably what users will see this summer when Apple starts selling the next version of its iconic smartphone, a hardware expert said today.

The phone, which tech enthusiast blog Gizmodo said it obtained after the iPhone was left in a Redwood City, Calif. bar, sports a new industrial-style design, includes a front-facing camera, a higher-resolution screen, a flash for the camera, a larger battery and other new features.

John Gruber, who writes the Daring Fireball blog, said it was common knowledge among insiders that the iPhone was stolen from Apple, then purchased by Gizmodo.

However it came to light, it's likely the real thing, said Aaron Vronko, CEO of Portage, Mich.-based Rapid Repair, a repair shop and do-it-yourself parts supplier for consumer devices, including Apple's iPod and iPhone and Microsoft's Zune. Vronko regularly tears apart Apple's hardware -- most recently the new iPad -- to get an idea of their construction and capabilities.

"It looks like the real deal," said Vronko Monday. "I didn't think for a second that it's a fake," he added after poring over the photos Gizmodo posted of the device.

Vronko based his take on the fit and finish of the case, the details Gizmodo revealed of the iPhone's internal parts, and the time remaining before the expected summer launch of the next model.

Although the iPhone in Gizmodo's possession could be a prototype that didn't make the cut, that's unlikely. "The fact of the matter, there's a real short list of people who Apple would allow to carry around a prototype, and it would be strange to waste that limited resource on the losing candidate," Vronko said.

The timing also led Vronko to bet that the Gizmodo iPhone is the final version. "If it was three or four months before launch, it might not be the final, but with just two months or so to go, assembly would be starting in earnest right about now," he said.

Even the massive design change from the iPhone 3G and 3GS makes sense, he said, citing Apple's practice of revamping the design of most of its products every two years. The iPhone 3G, which debuted in mid-2008, was the last major design shift of the smartphone. According to Gizmodo, the new iPhone features a flat back -- as opposed to the curved back case of the iPhone 3G and 3GS -- with an aluminum frame around its outside edges.

The change would also set the new iPhone apart from the copycat designs used by other smartphones. "Apple is seeing a lot of competition now, a lot of devices look like what the iPhone looks like," Vronko said. "But nobody looks like that [Gizmodo iPhone.]"

The new phone allegedly also includes a front-facing camera -- presumably for video phone-style chat -- a slightly smaller screen that boasts a resolution as high as 960-by-460 pixels, a secondary microphone for noise cancelation and an improved back-facing camera.

Gizmodo noted that the feature set fulfilled most wish lists. "They've delivered many of the features people have been waiting for ... while at the same time upgrading everything else," the blog said.

That, though, was one reason why people should be skeptical of the find, countered Vronko. "Since when does Apple give so much of what people want at the same time?" he asked, pointing out that the company marches to its own beat rather than respond whole hog to customers' requests. "It would be unusual for Apple to make so many users-demanded changes in one shot," Vronko opined.

Gizmodo posted only one photograph of the inside of the new iPhone, but Vronko said he still expected this summer's model to sport an Apple A4 system-on-a-chip, or SOC, the same one used in the new iPad . Or if not the very same A4, a derivative. "The key to making the battery last a long time in a phone is not how much the processor [requires] when it's running tasks, but how much it doesn't consume when it's not, how quickly it completes a task and goes into idle," said Vronko.

Gizmodo didn't say whether it believes the screen is a traditional LCD or based on the newer OLED (organic light emitting diode) technology. Vronko, who has speculated before about Apple turning to OLED, said that the newer display technology would significantly reduce battery consumption compared to the iPhone 3GS' LCD. "OLED screens are quite available, and Apple can certainly justify putting one in the iPhone with its profit margins," Vronko said. "Again, I'm kind of surprised that they wouldn't go to OLED."

He also said there is only a 50-50 chance that Apple has bumped up the system memory of the iPhone from the 3GS's 256MB to 512MB. "The limited form of multitasking that Apple has in iPhone 4 doesn't require them to go to 512MB," he said. On the other hand, video chat would benefit from more RAM.

And the flat back would let Apple place a complete or partial touchscreen on the reverse side of the iPhone down the road. "It could easily be a capacitive touchscreen for touch on the back, maybe for a modified keyboard, a split-style keyboard," said Vronko. "Think of a musical instrument," he said.

Although Apple previewed the new iPhone 4 operating system earlier this month and said it would ship this summer, it has not confirmed whether it will issue new hardware at the same time, and if so, when any updated iPhone would ship.

Apple did not reply to a request seeking comment on the Gizmodo post, and the claims by Gruber that the device had been stolen from the company.

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 .

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