It's officially iPhone season again now that Apple Inc. has set the date for its annual September launch event.
In typical fashion, the company's media invite Thursday was brief and shrouded in a bit of mystery. "9.9.2014. Wish we could say more," the email invite, set against a large gray Apple icon, teased.
The launch event will be held at 10 a.m. at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Cupertino, Calif., where the company is headquartered. It's a departure from Apple's recent product debuts, which have been held on its own campus or at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
Every year Apple hints that it has groundbreaking products on the way, but this time around, the anticipation is heightened. In the last couple of years, tech rivals have vastly improved their smartphones and other mobile devices, at times churning out products that have bested Apple's when it comes to performance and functionality — and in some cases, such as wearables, beating them to the market altogether.
Already, tech watchers have pointed to Apple's decision to use the Flint Center — where Steve Jobs debuted the original Mac three decades ago — as a sign that Apple is planning to announce something major. (A massive white structure is currently being built on the campus of De Anza College, where the Flint Center is located.) They've dissected the comments of Apple Senior Vice President Eddy Cue, who said in May that Apple was getting ready to launch "the best product pipeline that I've seen in my 25 years at Apple. I believe the products we've got coming are great."
Analysts, too, say they're expecting a blockbuster fall for Apple.
In an investor report this month, Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty said she was encouraged by the company's "innovation capabilities" under Chief Executive Tim Cook.
So what can Apple fans expect?
Two new iPhones seem like a sure thing, both of which are widely rumored to boast larger screens: one 4.7-inch version, one 5.5-inch version. The year-old iPhone 5s has a 4-inch screen; many consumers have complained that's too small. Samsung's Galaxy S5 smartphone, for instance, features a 5.1-inch screen and is the iPhone's biggest competitor.
The new iPhones will most likely come with a slate of new and improved features. James Ragan, senior equity analyst at Crowell, Weedon & Co., said he hoped to see better battery life, a more powerful processor, expansion of Apple's fingerprint technology, possible near-field communication capabilities and a better camera.
"It's going to be big," he said. "Investor expectations are high; customer expectations are high. It's very important that they roll out multiple products this year and that they perform well."
Ragan is already predicting that the new iPhones will be a big hit, and is estimating that Apple will ship between 55 million and 60 million iPhones worldwide during the quarter ending in December, which would be a record-breaker for the company.
There are also strong indications that Apple will debut a wearable device, possibly a smartwatch called the iWatch. Such a device would almost certainly be a big seller during the upcoming holiday season and would probably be a companion product that would easily sync to the iPhone and other Apple devices.
"Apple has the opportunity to take share in slower growth smartphone and tablet markets with larger screens and new services," Huberty said. "New product categories like iWatch, and services like payments could further boost growth."
She predicted that Apple could ship up to 60 million iWatch devices in the first year.
Other analysts have urged caution ahead of the launch event. Apple has yet to confirm anything. And in the past, rumors that preceded product debuts were sometimes off the mark.
"Expectations for a watch product may prove to be frothy for an item that has not been announced and has no pricing attached," BGC Financial analyst Colin Gillis wrote in a recent note to investors.
If Apple follows its previous timetable, the new iPhone would be released a week and a half after the launch event, hitting store shelves Sept. 19.
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