The latest leaked next-generation iPhone, which includes the same processor that powers the iPad, is probably a production or near-production unit, a hardware expert said today.
It's also the best clue yet that Apple isn't about to upstage the iPad with a smartphone that's more powerful, faster and less-expensive than its quick selling tablet.
Earlier this week, A Vietnamese forum published photographs of what it claimed was an iPhone. Several of the images were of the iPhone during and after a teardown, exposing internal components, including the logic board.
The exterior of the Vietnamese iPhone closely resembles the case of an earlier prototype photographed by technology blog Gizmodo , which paid US$5,000 for the device. The Gizmodo-obtained iPhone prototype raised a ruckus when it was disclosed by the site last month, with Apple demanding its return and California police involved in an investigation into possible theft charges.
A 21-year-old California man was identified by his lawyer as the person who took the iPhone prototype from a Redwood City, Calif. bar after an Apple software engineer left it behind.
Unlike Gizmodo's iPhone, the one that surfaced in Vietnam is labeled with production markings that identify it as a 16GB model.
When photographs of the Vietnamese iPhone are blown up, markings on the processor closely match those on production models of the iPad, the iFixit Web site noted Wednesday. According to iFixit, the markings mean that the next iPhone will be powered by the Apple-designed A4 SOC (system on a chip), which also runs the iPad .
"That makes sense," 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. Vronko regularly tears apart Apple hardware products -- most recently the iPad -- to get an idea of how they're built and what capabilities they have.
"That completely gels with the direction Apple is heading," Vronko added. "They're loathe to make a device and have it less expensive and more powerful than the iPad. So it makes sense that the iPhone will use the same processor, as long as it's not more powerful than the iPad."
When Gizmodo published photos of the iPhone prototype it had acquired, Vronko speculated that Apple would also use the A4 in its next-generation smartphone.
iFixit claimed that the markings on the A4 showed that the fourth-generation iPhone will include 256MB of system memory, the same amount as the iPad and last year's iPhone 3GS.
That, too, fits with Apple's announced plans to debut a limited form of multi-tasking with the next iPhone , said Vronko. In March, Apple previewed iPhone OS 4 and announced that the mobile operating system upgrade would allow specific forms of multitasking via seven new APIs (application programming interfaces).
"Call it partial multitasking," said Vronko of Apple's approach. "It's a handy way for them to handle it, since they then control what apps multitask. Most apps have little or no need for multitasking."
The 256MB of system memory is enough to allow partial multitasking in the next iPhone, Vronko said. If the iPhone had more -- say 512MB of memory -- it might mean Apple has bigger multitasking plans than it has publicly admitted.
But contrary to reports, Vronko wasn't buying the idea that the latest leaked iPhone was brought to Vietnam from the U.S. To him, it made sense that it popped up in Vietnam.
"Chinese companies have invested billions in Vietnam," he noted, referring to electronics production and assembly plants. "This could have leaked from a draft production facility in Vietnam."
Although he retained some skepticism of the iPhone's legitimacy, he said it was probably a production unit, or one very near production quality. "If it's real, that fits. Apple has to have three, four or five million iPhones in the pipeline at launch, so they'd have to have started building them this month," Vronko said.
Apple is expected to unveil the next iPhone June 7 , the opening day of its annual developers conference in San Francisco, and start selling the smartphone later that month.
But after this spring's leaks -- unprecedented for Apple -- what's left for Apple to talk about at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC)?
"I imagine they held back a few key things on iPhone OS 4," Vronko. "Maybe they'll show how the video chat is supposed to work. That may be the big 'wow' moment."
Both the Gizmodo and Vietnamese iPhones have a front-facing camera in addition to the usual camera on the back of the smartphone. Most analysts and pundits, Vronko included, have assumed that the front-facing camera will be used for video chats and calls.
"How will that be used?" Vronko asked, saying that question was one to keep in mind over the next month as Apple introduces, then starts selling, the next iPhone. "Once they sell a few million [new] iPhones, there will be a few million people who suddenly have a video telephony-ready phone. How will American consumers take to what will be the first realistic large-scale video telephone?"
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 email@example.com .
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