How iPhone Predictions Got So Good

As long as there have been iPhones, bloggers have been guessing what the next one will look like. They're getting pretty good at it. (UPDATE: Sure enough, there were no surprises in the iPhone 5 launch.)

The Original iPhone: What We Expected

The most credible mockup of the first iPhone, assembled by MacRumors in September 2006.

This was one of the least professional mockups, but the most accurate.

The Original iPhone: What We Got

The first iPhone was unveiled on January 8th, 2007, and no one knew what to expect.

In the weeks before, you can see the rumors bubble up. Steve Jobs had flatly denied the iPhone in 2003, but leaks from Digg's Kevin Rose (the details of which proved false), along with a suspicious report from a Taiwanese supplier were enough to put dedicated Apple-watchers back on alert.

But even relatively well-informed insiders couldn't really guess what was coming. Financial analysts predicted a dumbed-down Blackberry. Mostly, everyone thought it would look like an iPod. It was a whole new category of thing. Unpredictable.

That gave the keynote a magical aura, and set the terms for press coverage. For the next five years, everyone writing about Apple would be trying to peek behind the curtain, and everyone at Cupertino would be doing their best to keep them out.

The iPhone 3G: What We Expected

A leaked version of the white 3G shell, obtained by Apple Insider.

A patent application from Apple.

The 3D model used to make the shell, leaked to Engadget a few days before the 3G was unveiled.

The iPhone 3G: What We Got

By this time, iPhone rumors were becoming an industry. There were a lot more predictions, but for the most part, it was still a surprise. A few sites got early pictures of the plastic shell and everyone suspected in-phone GPS and 3G were coming, but beyond that, it was a mess. There were thinly sourced reports of a squarer shape and TV streaming. Kevin Rose popped up again with tales of a front-facing camera, which wouldn't happen until the iPhone 4. The biggest deal was the $199 price tag, which traveled far and fast but still managed to catch most of the world by surprise.

The iPhone 3GS: What We Expected

A lot of smart people were sure we would get an iPhone Nano this time around. Never happened.

Another Nano mockup released just weeks before the 3GS keynote.

The iPhone 3GS: What We Got

The best prediction was that we'd get a faster processor and minimal design changes. But that wasn't exciting enough on its own. The rumored matte finish? Not so much. Nearly everyone thought the 3GS would have a front-facing camera. This was also when the first iPhone Nano rumors started circulating, which have been haunting Apple bloggers ever since. The only solid intel came from MacRumors' eerily precise Chinese tipsters.

By now, there were enough bad guesses to make the keynote even more mysterious. Anything was possible and, for the most part, nobody knew anything for sure.

The iPhone 4: What We Expected

The iPhone 4: What We Got

This was the first time no guesswork was required. Over a month before the unveiling, an Apple engineer named Gray Powell left his prototype in a bar where it was subsequently purchased and exhaustively speced by Gizmodo. (Hi, boss!) Score one for the bloggers.

The iPhone 4S: What We Expected

A comparison shot predicting a larger screen for the iPhone 4S.

In the days before launch, this teardrop design was considered the most credible prediction.

The iPhone 4S: What We Got

The big news this time around was Siri and some geeky processor upgrades, but most Apple-watchers were expecting a complete overhaul — an iPhone 5 instead of an iPhone 4S. (Hi boss, again.) That led to a frenzy of misleading form-factor leaks, from larger screens to curved edges more reminiscent of the first three models. Consensus emerged around the thin teardrop form factor mocked up above. Instead of silence, there was too much information, which made the final reveal more of a disappointment than Apple had planned.

The iPhone 5

Which brings us to tomorrow's announcement. For the record, we're expecting a longer design, 4G and a new dock connector, among other things.

We have a pretty clear idea of what's going to happen, which might be the most shocking thing of all. It feels ominous to say it after cataloging every failed prediction and unexpected rollout of the past five years, but the Apple-Rumor Industrial Complex has gotten pretty good at seeing what's coming. Equipment manufacturers in China and Vietnam aren't afraid to leak specs anymore, and Apple's become transparent enough (at least compared to the kremlinology of the early days) that it's easier to tell what's legit. The mystery of the Next iPhone just isn't what it used to be.

But if you need a White Whale, there's always the 7-inch iPad... supposedly coming in October.

UPDATE: As predicted, all the iPhone 5 rumors proved true.