updated 10:30 pm EST, Mon February 11, 2013
Widely reported as Foxconn photos, more likely to be knockoffs
A set of photos that appeared on a Chinese website and were subsequently claimed to be the "iPhone 5S" in a number of tech outlets are almost certainly hoaxes, say experts from iFixIt.com and elsewhere. Much more likely is the idea that the images come from a China-based "iClone" producer, though there are still some who think they could be the long-rumored "cheaper iPhone" using inferior parts and assembly techniques to compete with lower-grade smartphones.
Though the pictures (sampling seen below) do resemble the iPhone 5 -- right down to a space for a Lightning-like connector -- the assembled innards "don't look like something Apple would build," according to MacFixIt's Kyle Weins, AppleInsider reports. A French iOS enthusiast site also says the photos appear to show support for an SD card, casting serious doubt on the photos being from any Apple product. The use of obviously cheaper chips and battery, along with a larger hole for the home button and the poor internal layout appears to mark the units as knock-offs rather than authentic Apple products, even in the prototype stage.
In addition, one of the photos shows factory "clean room" workers sitting on the floor and otherwise idle -- an unlikely occurrence at any Foxconn facility, where workers take their breaks away from the factory floor. The vibration motor shown in the pictures is also said to be a model that is considerably louder and more annoying than the more subtle motors used by Apple.
It is possible that Apple could be testing ways to make an iPhone less expensive and that the photos are of engineering samples used for testing purposes, but Apple Legal has not moved to block or take down the photos as it normally does in authentic leaks. The enormous market of iPhone copycat models available in China -- some of which are so similar that they have been serviced by Apple -- lends credibility to the idea that these images stem from one of those facilities rather than from Foxconn, which tightly controls images taken in its facilities.
Various rumors -- often fuelled by Wall Street analysts and others seeking to manipulate the stock or draw publicity to themselves -- have floated a wide range of possibilities for Apple's iPhone plans, none of which are solidly supported with independent evidence. Though there is at least some credible reasoning behind the concept of Apple releasing a lower-cost iPhone model in some markets where incomes are dramatically lower than in North America and Europe -- including China, India and countries in South America -- no real evidence has emerged to support the notion that such a device (if it even exists) is in wide production for near-term release.
Other rumors call for both a "5S" type model and an iPhone 6 to be released at different points of the year this year, with the latter positioned for the holiday buying market. While it is impossible to rule it out entirely, it would require Apple to work considerably faster and with much greater secrecy than it ever has before.
Though there are some who are already dismissing a future "5S" model (which would look like the current iPhone 5 but have bumped improvements in processor, graphics or other minor enhancements) as not competitive enough, there is perhaps an even larger sector of buyers that see the "S" class iPhones as "perfected" versions of the introductory model with bonus features and greater support (as has been the case with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4S). Apple tends to prefer to try and get its products as polished as possible before launch, often delaying the expected arrival in order to do so.
Trying to release three distinct new models in a single year -- a "cheap" iPhone for certain markets, an "iPhone 5S" (presumably in late spring or early summer) and an all-new "iPhone 6" in the fall -- strains credibility, particularly in light of Apple's propensity to simply reduce the price and continue to carry and support older models as its answer to "cheaper" iPhones. The company has recently been experimenting with payment plans for iPhones in China, which further undermines the need for a lower-quality "cheap" iPhone.
The one thing that is fairly predictable about Apple is that early rumors rarely turn out to be wholly accurate. The plethora of computer-generated or 3D-printed "iPhone 5" models -- though mostly based on prototypes that turned out to be correct -- proves that it's extremely difficult to be sure of advance leaks unless they cannot be easily doubted. Even reputable press outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have published information on the company that turned out to be false or inaccurate.