The iPhone 5 is almost here. Why should we care?

New Analysis: The iPhone 5 should be unveiled in August or September. In the meantime, a quick look at how the release of an Apple iPhone became The Greatest Tech Spectacle in the World.

iPhone 5 rumors have exploded across the Web in recent days. And there's good reason to gossip about the iPhone 5 – it hints at where the industry will head over the next year. Here, Apple chief Steve Jobs at a conference in 2009.

The age of the iPhone 5 is upon us. Judging from a smattering of reports, some on large news services and some on notoriously accurate blogs, the latest iPhone model will drop in either August or September, and include a more powerful chip, a more powerful camera – and maybe even a new tapered shape. Meanwhile, some analysts have speculated that a cheaper iPhone will be introduced in conjunction with the iPhone 5, and rolled out to foreign markets.

All of which raises a simple question: Why should we care? After all, Apple predictably rolls out a new iPhone device every year. Before the iPhone 5, there was the iPhone 4, and before the iPhone 4, there was the iPhone 3G, and backward, it feels like, almost unto infinity. The iPhone is like the weather in New England. Don't like it now? Well, hang tight for a few minutes. It'll get better.

Still, interest in the iPhone line remains perennially high. And not just among tech bloggers, either, but the millions of Web users worldwide who click on iPhone related articles, driving traffic on tech sites sky high, and sending the phrase "iPhone 5" soaring to the top of the Google Trends list. The reason is probably twofold. First of all, Apple has done an extraordinarily good job of creating The Cult of the iPhone.

From the advertisements that stress how different the iPhone is from other handsets, to the big-budget release spectacles – which often resemble Hollywood premieres – Apple is always building the mythos of their flat-screened handset. And they are also always fanning the rumor flames: coyly shooting down some rumors, letting others sit (but pouncing when someone goes too far in revealing a detail of an upcoming iPhone).

As tech geeks, we have bought a hundred percent into that hype, and thus, the mere mention of the iPhone 5 is enough to send most of us into a frothing, foaming frenzy. But there is another reason we care about the iPhone 5, or at least another reason we should care about the iPhone 5: The iPhone 5, like the iPhones before it, will likely determine the shape of the market for the next year.

Apple is a major innovator when it comes to handheld devices – even handheld devices such as the iPad, which we probably don't even really need – and for the time being, Apple's competitors spend most of their time responding to Apple. So yes, the EVO line is fantastic, and yes, the new Windows Phone 7 devices will likely be fast and sleek, but both handsets are in their own way ripostes to the iPhone.

In other words, the iPhone 5 does not and will not exist in a bubble, as a device to be calmly viewed on its own merits. Instead, it is a thermometer, a barometer, and a crystal ball of things to come.

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