Apple’s Beijing flagship store on January 13, 2012 in Beijing, China.

Image: Feng Li/Getty Images
By Pete Pachal2014-09-07 15:59:41 UTC

The sequence of events leading up to Apple‘s annual ritual of unveiling new iPhones is usually pretty rote. Rumors appear with increasing frequency, photos of product parts leak out and once the company finally gets around to actually unveiling the new products, we already know virtually all about them.

This time, however, things are different. Reports say the Sept. 9 Apple event will see the company enter a new product category. The iWatch — Apple’s answer to the smartwatch and fitness tracker — will make its debut at the event, reports say, and we actually know very little about it.

Sure, there have been leaks and rumors about the iWatch’s software and abilities, insider speculation on how many versions there will be and various other scraps, but compared to the nonstop cavalcade of alleged iPhone 6 images, it’s all pretty hazy.

Double down on iPhone

There’s something else different about this iPhone unveiling. Like last year, we’re supposedly going to see two new iPhones, but this time, neither one will be the “cheap” version.

Last year, Apple launched the iPhone 5S and 5C, but the C was really just a repackaged iPhone 5. It was new, but it was a step down.

This time, Apple is expected to launch two new iPhones — both larger than the current one and both state-of-the-art. The new sizes, based on alleged leaked parts, will be 4.7 and 5.5 inches. It appears that, similar to the iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display, Apple will offer two products with the same internals and different screen sizes.

There will be more upgrades — a faster chip, increased resolution and improvements to the camera — but everyday users may benefit most from the phone’s extremely durable sapphire glass covering the screen, one of the rumored new features. Apple has reportedly run into trouble producing the glass in the quantities it needs, though, so we might have to wait another year.

Rumors say Apple will call the 5.5-inch iPhone the “iPhone 6L.” That’s as good a name as any, although consumers will care more about how much it’ll cost. It’ll almost certainly be a step up from the 4.7-inch model, but $50 more or $100 more?

And let’s not forget that iOS 8, first unveiled in June, will finally get its release date. If Apple sticks with its usual pattern, anyone with an iPhone 4S or later will be able to download iOS 8 on Sept. 17. Expect the complaints to begin about an hour later.

iWatch: the new category treatment

It’s remarkable that Apple has managed to keep most of its iWatch details a secret. It could be that Apple’s curtain of secrecy was more effective for the iWatch since the product has a different supply chain than the iPhones, but that seems doubtful. More likely, as has been rumored, the iWatch will debut at a much later date than the iPhones, which almost always go on sale on the Friday of the week following the event — in this case, Sept. 19.

iWatch concept

One of many iWatch concept renderings available on the Internet.

So why is Apple unveiling the iWatch now, if it’s not going on sale for a few more months? A couple of reasons: First, the iWatch is a companion to the iPhone. Sure, Apple could wait for its October iPad unveiling to show us the iWatch (giving that event some needed sizzle), but it doesn’t fit. The iWatch goes with the iPhone.

Also probably factoring into the decision: By unveiling the iWatch now, well ahead of the launch date, Apple can finally truly surprise. Just as with the original iPhone and iPad, we all knew generally what was coming, but we didn’t know exactly. For a new product category, Apple always puts on a show, and by the choice of venue, it’s clear Tim Cook and co. think they have something special.

So the iWatch is imitating the release pattern of its predecessors, but will it be as disruptive? The smartwatch category is certainly experiencing a boom, although it’s still unclear if consumers really want them. The iWatch could be the product to take smartwatches mainstream, but to do that, it needs to do something that no other wearable does.

Rumors say the iWatch will have a curved-screen design, come in two sizes and have multi-day battery life. But based on early leaks of the software, its big differentiator will be the extensive sensor data that it gathers about the wearer’s health.

At the iWatch unveiling, Apple will finally connect the dots between the iPhone, the Health app it showed at WWDC in June and wearable technology. The message on the iWatch will be balanced — it won’t purely be about health for fear of being labeled a fitness tracker — but as far as what it’ll offer over other wearables besides a great design and the ability to work seamlessly with an iPhone, the Health angle seems clear.

Extra seeds

Apple recently endured a black eye, as iCloud — rightly or wrongly — was implicated in the nude celebrity photo hack. In his remarks, Cook may take a minute or two to reaffirm his promise to improve security on the service.

Tuesday also marks the first public Apple event since the company closed its deal to buy Beats. While it’s only been a month, so it’s still a bit early for the first Beats project as an Apple company, we may see the beginnings of the collaboration — or at least an appearance by Dr. Dre.

Apple certainly could pack an iPod refresh, a release date for OS X Yosemite and maybe even new iPads (as one analyst has predicted) into its big show; but even if it does all that, those announcements will take their place in the background of the new iPhones and iWatch.

Sept. 9, 2014, will be remembered as the day when Apple finally released a phablet, and dove into wearables. One more thing is certain: It’ll be the most interesting Apple event in years.

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