What should the next iPhone have?

Image: Apple iPhone
The next version of the iPhone will likely resemble the current version in form factor, analysts say. The phone was put on the market last June, and a new phone is likely due out within a few months. Mark Lennihan / AP file

What will the next version of the iPhone have that the current one doesn’t?

Will it have a keyboard for those who haven’t been touched — in a good way — by the iPhone’s touchscreen? How about GPS capabilities? Will there be iPhones in different sizes, similar to what Apple has done with its iPod digital music player?

With a recent shortage of the phones in U.S. stores, and indications that a new model may be released within the next few months, it’s natural to pose the questions.

Walt Mossberg, technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal, said 3G, a faster broadband connection, is coming to the new iPhone "in 60 days." He made the remark last week while speaking at a Beet.TV executive summit in Washington, D.C. A video clip of the statement was shared on technology blog Engadget.com.

What does Apple say? Very little. The company routinely declines to comment on products that are in development.

“They’re clearly one of the more secretive organizations around,” said Ken Dulaney, vice president of Gartner Research.

“They’re very, very tight with information on what they’re doing,” said Michael Mace of Rubicon Consulting, which recently surveyed 460 iPhone owners about their likes and dislikes of the phone.

From touch to tactile?
In that survey, 43 percent “strongly supported making at least one major physical change to the iPhone: making it larger or smaller, adding a keyboard or adding a keypad,” Rubicon said in its report.

“There are a lot of people who would like to have a 12-key keypad, because it’s easier for them to dial,” said Mace.

“You get that tactile feedback of actually touching the buttons, instead of just having the slippery screen.”

The Rubicon survey also found that the iPhone is used “less often for composing e-mail than reading it, since the device lacks a physical keyboard.”

Apple announced last month that its free iPhone 2.0 software upgrade, due in late June, will include Microsoft’s Exchange Active Sync software. The program synchronizes with a PC for e-mail, calendar and contact information. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

By doing so, Apple is aiming to grab a share of the business smartphone market now dominated by Research in Motion’s BlackBerry.

Rubicon said in its report that “if Apple really wants to target RIM…it will need to create an iPhone with a thumb keyboard, something that (Apple CEO) Steve Jobs has spoken against in the past.”

Dan Tynan, a PC World contributing editor, wrote a recent open letter to Jobs about the “top things to fix” in the next iPhone. Among them: the need for a keyboard.

“Yeah, the touchscreen is cool. And maybe the kids are down with doing the two-finger tango,” he wrote. “But we thumb typists are tapping our fingers in frustration.”

He suggested a “slide-out keyboard option,” and said, “even an add-on Bluetooth keyboard might work.”

GPS and a little light
Dulaney, of Gartner, thinks adding a GPS chip to the iPhone would be a “logical” enhancement to the phone’s location-mapping software. It lets users approximate their locations, using phone cell towers and local Wi-Fi networks.

“GPS would offer additional accuracy,” he said. “There’s enough evidence that this is a technology that Apple likes, and can make revenue from.”

Various GPS subscriptions are available for certain BlackBerry models. One, by TeleNav, costs $10 a month; another, by Garmin, is $100 a year.

“That’s cheaper than paying $500 for a GPS system, and with a subscription plan, users don’t have to shell out this big amount of money,” Dulaney said.

He also thinks it’s possible Apple might change the iPhone’s LCD screen to a more energy-efficient OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) screen.

The difference, he said, is that although OLED is about twice as expensive as using LCD, it’s also more energy-efficient, takes less physical space in the device and would allow “for other technologies like GPS or 3G, without having an impact on battery life.”

3G speed bump
It does seems likely that the new iPhone will include faster wireless technology, known as third generation, or 3G, an upgrade from the current iPhone, which is 2.5G.

Such a speed bump is important to would-be iPhone owners, many of whom say it’s one of the reasons they’re waiting for the next model before buying.

Most smartphones that are capable of Internet and e-mail perform much better using 3G, which can transmit data at a rate of between 400,000 kilobits per second and 1.4 megabits per second.

In contrast, 2.5G has a transmission rate ranging between 144 and 384 kilobits per second.

Tim Bajarian, president of Creative Strategies market analysts, says 3G may be on the radar, but not GPS or OLED screens.

“Where the changes will take place will be in software, and in software specifically related to not only applications, but additional user interface issues.”

He cites voice recognition and voice command programs as examples.

How it shapes up
Both Bajarian and Dulaney say the size and shape of the iPhone likely will not change.

“From a physical standpoint, the iPhone is extremely well-designed,” Bajarian said. “The form factor itself presents great in its own right, with a big screen and touch interface. And more importantly, it’s viewed as a platform, so that you can clearly add more applications and potential features. But you would do that in the software, not the hardware.”

Dulaney thinks the the next iPhone will have more capacity, perhaps 32 gigabytes. The phone now comes in a 16-gigabyte version ($499), and an 8-gigabyte model ($399).

More capacity would be a plus. Last month, Apple rolled out its software development kit for the iPhone, which will mean a torrent of third-party programs for the phone on the market in conjunction with the 2.0 software upgrade.

Both Bajarian and Dulaney think that a removable battery —something that is common on other cell phones, but not on the iPhone — will not be likely in the next model.

Apple’s “actions and history” about removable batteries — with iPods lacking them, as well as the MacBook Air, Apple’s newest laptop — indicate that, Dulaney said.

Here come the clones
Mace, of Rubicon Consulting, said it would behoove Apple to release iPhones in different shapes and sizes, similar to what the company has done with its iPods.

“One of the things I’ve learned from being in the mobile industry for a long time is that one size does not fit all,” he said. “If Apple doesn’t do different shapes and sizes of iPhones, that will leave holes in the market that other competitors can fill.”

In this undated photo provided by Sprint, the Samsung Instinct is shown. The Samsung Instinct will be available in June for an as yet undetermined price, Sprint announced at cell-phone industry trade show CTIA Wireless in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 1, 2008. (AP Photo/Sprint)

Indeed, some of them are trying. A few of the candidates were shown last week at CTIA-The Wireless Association’s annual trade show in Las Vegas.

Among them was Samsung’s Instinct touchscreen phone, which will be available in June and sold by Sprint Nextel (no pricing announced yet). The Instinct will have a GPS chip, and its screen measures 3.1 inches, compared to the iPhone’s 3.5 inches.

LG also showed its $300 Vu phone, also with a touchscreen and iPhone-like appearance, which will be marketed by AT&T, which also exclusively sells the iPhone.

The Voyager, another iPhone look-alike by LG, is already on the market. It has a touchscreen, but also a slide-out keyboard. It retails for $299 and is carried by Verizon Wireless.

“Unfortunately, right now, what you see a lot of mobile phone vendors doing is trying to slavishly copy the current form factor of the iPhone, and I think that’s very likely to produce disappointed customers,” Mace said.

“Because if it looks exactly like an iPhone, people are going to expect it to work exactly like an iPhone, and when it doesn’t, they’ll get really disappointed.”

As to the next iPhone, Mace, like most, is not making any bets.

“Apple specializes in catching us all by surprise,” he said.