Yes, the iPhone 5 Is Coming Tomorrow... but That's Not the Interesting Part

Last Updated Oct 3, 2011 1:12 PM EDT

Tomorrow is the year's big iPhone event, as Apple (AAPL) uncharacteristically admitted. Details are officially under wraps, except some tantalizing details that have surfaced in various ways suggest that Apple will at least pursue a two-model strategy and possibly may expand to a continued three-iPhone line-up for the first time.

Depending on which happens, you can expect pundits and fanboys to closely watch the result while competitors try to decide how to maneuver around the Apple marketing mammoth.

iPhone 5? Of course
There is simply no way that Apple would have this event without an iPhone 5, and there's already evidence to suggest that it's definitely going to happen. BGR got a leak of an AT&T (T) inventory screen showing iPhone 5 cases.

That said, everyone has known that Apple would have to release a new model iPhone. It would otherwise disappoint customers, tank its stock, and risk letting phones running Google's (GOOG) Android take even more of a commanding lead. The more people use Android, the more people remain out of the iOS ecosystem. Apple's delay from its usual early summer iPhone announcement will likely help sales. A longer delay, though, could actually hurt Apple's business.

So the iPhone 5 looks like a given, unless new CEO Tim Cook wants to start his tenure with a colossal screw-up. The questions now mostly concern what Apple will do with the new model. Some analysts hope for a radically revamped look, maybe with an aluminum unibody, to put more perceived distance between it and competitors.

But what does it do?
An 8 megapixel camera and souped-up processor seem likely and would follow Apple's approach of adding features now common to its rivals, but spinning them as something brand new. Thinner, lighter phones with greater battery life also seem reasonable to expect.

The big difference may be in what the iPhone 5 actually does. Look for some new variation on iCloud, Apple's online storage/access service, intended to move it further ahead of what rivals offer. Full voice control would also push ahead on Apple's goal of making life simpler for the consumer. Voice recognition may be an old technology, but used smartly, it could be big. After all, multi-touch interfaces had been around before the first iPhone -- but guess who made them essential?

iPhone 4S? A good guess
Next up, the rumored iPhone 4S -- whatever, exactly, it might turn out to be. 9to5 Mac noted that the term iPhone 4S showed up in the latest iTunes beta and also seemed to appear in Apple's inventory system. Plus, a German carrier lists three different iPhone 4S models.

None of that is proof positive, but the idea of a modified iPhone 4 makes sense. The iPhone 3GS hit the market in the summer of 2009. It was a half step between the 3G and the iPhone 4, which came out in 2010 (at which point Apple kept the 3GS but dropped the 3G). With the 3GS, Apple moved to a two-model line-up. The company could keep the newest model as a higher-priced leader and still have the previous model that it could discount.

At least the same is likely to happen now. The iPhone 4 will become the 4S, gaining some new features -- i.e., the possibility of dual-mode operation on both GSM and CDMA mobile-phone networks -- but costing less than the 5. The approach allows Apple to keep a second-level pricing and reach consumers who might otherwise look elsewhere.

A new bargain-basement iPhone?
The real intrigue has been whether Apple will introduce a lower-cost iPhone. Some have assumed that the 4S would be the cheap model -- and, no doubt, it will be cheaper than the 5. But there's some evidence that Apple might create yet a third tier -- and some solid business reasons why the company would want to.

The Brazil version of Gizmodo found evidence of yet another new iPhone about to hit the market. What is suggestive in the photos the site received is a previously unseen model number, much like there are specific model numbers for the other iPhones.

Maybe it's the iPhone 5, maybe not. There are good reasons that Apple might want to create a different low-cost model. Although Android has a market share lead over iOS, one reason is probably the often cheaper prices of the Android hardware. If Apple could have a separate introductory model that would leverage cloud resources and lower the demands on the hardware, it could then try to take the bottom out from under Android pricing and capture many more customers.

No way to tell until tomorrow, of course. But if you ran Apple, what approach would you take? The now expected two-phone split, or a three-phone line-up?

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Image: Flickr user David Boyle, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.