iPhone 5 and 4S

9 to 5 Mac has been informed that Apple has seeded select developers with prototype iPhones. These iPhones look identical to an iPhone 4 but feature the faster A5 processor that’s found in the iPad 2. Their source called the prototype device the “iPhone 4S.”

Many of the latest rumors — excluding Joshua Topolsky’s — have pointed to the iPhone 5 having the same, or very similar design to the current iPhone 4. It’s entirely possible that the iPhone 4S that Apple has lent to developers is the source of these rumors. But, Apple could be putting next generation hardware inside of the iPhone 4 enclosure in order to keep the next generation design secret — just like iPhone 4 prototypes that were put in a case that looked like a 3GS. So, I wouldn’t count Topolsky’s rumor out entirely.

Joshua Topolsky has heard that “the design of the phone is set to radically change.” This radically changed design will be thinner than the iPhone 4, appear “teardrop” shaped from the side, feature a gesture area around the home button, and a larger 3.7-inch display will reach from edge to edge — nearly eliminating the bezel on the left and right side.

However, I still think Apple will keep a similar design to the iPhone 4. And Topolsky might thinks so too, judging by his “this info isn’t fact” paragraph which mentions that his source could be seeing design prototypes and not production ready phones. History has shown that Apple doesn’t release major design changes every generation anymore. They do continue to do so with their iPod lineup, but Macs and iPhones (and I’d bet iPads) are different. Macs and iPads are much more expensive and iPhones come with two year contracts, so most users don’t upgrade every year.

But even though the iPhone 5 may not see a design change, the iPhone prototypes that are being lent to developers aren’t finished hardware. If Apple does keep the same design it’s very unlikely that the A5 processor will be the only change. The iPhone 5 is almost certain to receive an 8 megapixel camera and a new cellular networking chip that’s capable of running on both GSM and CDMA networks.

It’s obvious that the iPhone 4S that Apple has been lending to developers isn’t the finished hardware, but I doubt Topolsky’s source is accurate regarding finished hardware either. The teardrop shape and edge to edge display seem like reasonable additions, but a 3.7-inch display and gesture area seem highly unlikely. The only way I could see Apple offering a 3.7-inch iPhone is if they decided not to sell the previous generation device at the $99 price point as they have with the 3G and 3GS. Apple would offer a 3.5-inch iPhone in two capacities for $99 and $199, alongside a higher end 3.7-inch iPhone at $299. This would keep the product lineup simple and seems more characteristic of the types of launches Apple does. I certainly don’t expect Apple to just release a 3.7-inch iPhone, this would leave the 3.5-inch model lagging behind in hardware features and would make hardware development for the following year’s release much more complicated — they would have to develop two different sized iPhones concurrently.

And then there’s that gesture area. There’s a simple reason why I don’t expect Apple to release an iPhone with a gesture area, inadvertent input. I have heard of people accidentally activating a gesture on their MacBook trackpads without ever realizing what they did, all they know is that all of a sudden stuff moved around on them. I’ve even done this with my Magic Mouse — moving back a page in Safari because I inadvertently swiped two fingers on the Magic Mouse. Many iPhone users hold their device in landscape mode while typing or playing games, if you accidentally swiped your right thumb the wrong way it would activate a gesture. I’d be quite upset if I accidentally jumped to my home screen during a game of Tiny Wings because I moved my finger wrong.

But, I’m willing to bet that there’s at least a kernel of truth in all of these rumors. Apple probably does have an iPhone 4S waiting in the wings. This way if serious production issues arise, Apple won’t leave us waiting too long for a new handset. And, if Apple doesn’t release Topolsky’s rumored design then Apple was probably just testing it and will either release a version of it in the future. Or after testing it for a while, decided it just wasn’t right and scrapped it altogether. We already know that Apple’s testing gestures on the iPad, why wouldn’t they be testing gestures around the home screen button? Apple develops a lot of designs that never see the light of day, it doesn’t mean rumors of those design were wrong.