Apple will launch the next iPhone in May or June 2013, offering a swath of colors and multiple screen sizes in a move that would depart from a six-year practice, a Wall Street analyst said today.
"Apple has the option to go up [in screen size] or down," said Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets in a Wednesday interview. "And colors matter."
One or both of the moves -- White believes it will be a one-two combination -- would expand Apple's smartphone portfolio and, thus, its customer reach. "A larger screen expands the market for Apple. Go to China, Hong Kong or anywhere in Asia and you'll see that the bigger Samsung phones are gaining momentum. Bigger has a little bit of a cachet in Asia."
Samsung's Note II -- dubbed a "phablet" in a nod to the mash-up of phone and tablet -- with a 5.5-in. display, and the same company's Galaxy S III, which sports a 4.8-in. screen, are examples of the larger sizes White had in mind for the iPhone.
Apple currently sells a 4-in. smartphone, the iPhone 5 introduced last September, and the older 3.5-in. iPhone 4S and iPhone 4, models from 2011 and 2010, respectively.
To this point, Apple has never offered more than one screen size in a new iPhone.
Apple now offers multiple screen sizes in its other lines -- Macs, iPod and with the introduction of the iPad Mini late last year, the iPad -- but not the iPhone, White noted.
"Here in the U.S., you see phones getting bigger and bigger," White said. "There are plenty of 5-in. smartphones out there now. Apple [going larger] would give people the option. It would help expand their world if they did."
Although White said he had no specifics of possible screen sizes, a move to a 5-in. iPhone "makes sense." So does a smaller iPhone, one he tagged with the "iPhone Mini" placeholder label.
"They may not call it 'Mini,' but the day's going to come when they make a less-expensive iPhone," White said. "Although a smaller screen may not be required to build a less-expensive phone, it would certainly help."
Last year, Apple upsized the iPod Nano's screen to 2.5-in. from 2011's 1.5-in. A smaller iPhone could take a display clue from the new Nano.
It certainly will when it comes to colors, White maintained.
He's convinced that the expansion of color choice for the iPod Touch -- last September, Apple started selling the largest iPod in red, pink, yellow, and blue along with black and white -- was a test bed for new iPhone hues.
"After the Touch, they'll know which colors sell the best, how to juggle the inventory," said White, as well as solving any manufacturing problems. "Colors will make it tougher for competitors, because Apple will do [colors] well. Look how long it took to do the white iPhone," White said, referring to the 2011 addition to the iPhone's Henry Ford-esque black-only selection. "Think of it as a learning phase for adding colors to the iPhone."
Apple released the white iPhone about 10 months after first announcing it.
White also placed his bet on a release date of May or June for the next iPhone, echoing at least one other analyst. In mid-December, Jefferies analyst Peter Misek predicted Apple would break tradition by shipping a new smartphone in June 2013.
Like Misek, White applied the "iPhone 5S" moniker to the still-only-rumored model, but said he was "very confident" that he had the timeline right.
"June -- I've also said May to be on the safe side -- makes more sense," White said. "Samsung, which is really Apple's only competition at this point, generally comes out with theirs around then."
Waiting until September or October, as it has done for the last two years, has put Apple at a disadvantage versus Samsung, White argued.
He also thought a move to May or June could mean Apple would dump the iPhone's annual refresh, a practice it's stuck to since the first model launched in 2007. "I don't think [multiple refreshes] are crazy," said White. "It may not be every six months, but Apple is ramping production faster each year, so it's possible they could launch in May, then again in the fall."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is email@example.com.