URLINGAME, CALIF. -
The launch of the next-generation iPhone promises to be Steve Jobs’ greatest stunt yet.
Apple (nasdaq: AAPL - news - people ), Jobs’ secretive computer and gadget company, has been quietly positioning millions of units of a mysterious new product–almost certainly the new iPhone–in key markets since March. And yet, incredibly, not one credible image of Apple’s new product has yet been published.
If the new phone is a flop, it’s going to be a doozy. Apple is promising to sell 10 million of the gizmos this year; many investors are betting the Cupertino, Calif., company will sell many more than that. Yet Jobs has managed to keep the look, the feel and a complete list of the phone’s features under wraps.
Thirteen Apple Innovations: Past, Present And Future
It’s almost certain Jobs will unveil the latest version of the iPhone June 9, putting the gadget up for sale shortly thereafter. Ryan Peterson, co-founder at start-up ImportGenius.com, was the first to get the details of how Apple will make this happen. Peterson–an iPhone fan himself–sells shipping data culled from a clutch of government and private databases.
Meanwhile, analysts have a good idea who is making the parts inside the phone. Apple’s new model is likely built around new, burlier communications chips from Infineon, says Will Strauss, a veteran communications chip watcher at Forward Concepts. Global positioning systems will be another new capability, Strauss says.
The look and feel of the phone, however, remains a mystery. Security at Apple’s headquarters is tight. Rank-and-file staff say sensitive projects are draped with cloth before they’re even brought into work. Yet Jobs would have had to have let others in on the secret once they handed off the specs for the new phone to Quanta (and quite probably also to Hon Hai Precision Industry) for assembly in sprawling compounds in China’s Guangdong province.
One clue: Jobs began racking up serious mileage on his corporate jet during the company’s final quarter of 2007, as he likely finalized deals with distribution partners in Europe and Asia, and perhaps scrutinized the first 3G iPhone handsets to come from his partners’ factories. Morgan Stanley’s (nyse: MS - news - people ) Kathryn Huberty was the first to spot the enormous jump in Jobs’ airplane expenses–to $550,000 from $203,000 during the previous quarter.
During the first quarter of 2008, however, the focus shifted back to Cupertino. Apple’s engineers were scrambling to revise the phone’s software, and the company delayed by a week a software development kit that would open up the iPhone to outside developers. It was all backed by a $100 million “iFund,” launched by Kleiner Perkins to fuel developers crafting applications for the phone.
Less than two weeks later, in mid-March, the first shipments of the new devices began arriving. The first 20 containers arrived at the Port of Oakland, Calif., the largest port on the West Coast, March 19, according to ImportGenius.com. The containers were quickly trundled off the ships and trucked 27 miles south to a distribution center in Fremont, Calif. More shipments followed on March 27, April 28 and May 6.
On April 23, when Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook told investors on Apple’s quarterly earnings call the company would sell 10 million iPhones before the year was out, he knew that millions of the new phones were already on their way to retailers.
By May 6, it became clear that AT&T (nyse: T - news - people ) was getting ready for something big, with a blogger publishing an all-hands memo to employees at AT&T stores telling them they couldn’t take vacation time between June 15 and July 12. That news hit amid widespread reports of iPhone shortages in Europe and across the U.S.
Meanwhile, the container ships just kept coming. May 17, the last known shipment arrived at the Port of New York aboard the NYK Delphinus, an enormous, squared-off slab of a vessel flagged to Panama, according to Peterson.
But it wasn’t until earlier this month, when a potential customer, impressed with what Peterson could dig up about ethanol imports, asked Peterson about the iPhone. “This is really detailed stuff,” the potential customer asked Peterson. “What can you tell me about the iPhone?”
That, of course, could be just the start of what Jobs announces June 9. Veteran Apple watchers are noting a redesign of Apple’s hot-selling notebook computers is long overdue. Some are even wondering if Apple will introduce a touch-sensitive table tablet that riffs off the iPod Touch’s touch-sensitive interface. Quite a mystery.
What we know for sure though is that sales of the iPhone are fading fast and Apple will have to do something very soon to get those phones moving. And it’s clear now that Apple has many million units of that “special something” already sitting in distribution centers around the country. We can hardly wait to find out what Jobs has in store.