Is Apple testing a new iPhone model?

A software analytics program has detected evidence that Apple Inc. may be testing a new iPhone model in the San Francisco area. But there’s very little hard evidence of what the newness might be.

Earlier in November, software developer Pandav discovered in usage logs for its iBART public transportation app that an iPhone had identified itself as “iPhone 3,1.” The identification was picked up via the PinchMedia analytics software embedded in iBART. MacRumors and AppleInsider reported on the discovery.

The newest iPhone model is the 3GS, which used “iPhone 2,1” as its identifier. According to the Web reports, Apple raises the first of the two numbers when it introduces a major new hardware model of the popular smartphone. AppleInsider notes that the original iPhone was iPhone 1,1, and the iPhone 3G, featuring only minor changes, was iPhone 1,2.

MacRumors reports that the first iPhone 3,1 reference was uncovered in the phone’s firmware back in August. The Pandav reference seems to be the first use by a live device. The site reports Apple first began testing what became the 3GS model in October 2008, about 8 months before its release in 2009.

The use of the numeral 3 in the new identifies suggests that Apple has major changes in store for the hardware. And that prospect is fueling all kinds of speculation.

One long-rumored possibility is a Verizon Wireless Inc.-based iPhone, though Verizon’s aggressive promotion of the new Motorola Droid, with its TV ad campaign mocking the otherwise-unnamed “iDon’t” phone, might have cooled that opportunity.

Another possibility, cited by ChannelWeb, is a multi-core CPU that could dramatically boost the iPhone’s processing power. But the recently introduced 3GS model was a pretty dramatic boost itself, with the Samsung S5PC100 system-on-a-chip, which is based on ARM’s Cortex-A8, which was only introduced in early 2009 as a very high-performance, low-power CPU optimized for handhelds.

The apparent discovery comes at a time when speculation is surging anew about a possible deal between Apple and cellular chipmaker Qualcomm Inc., according to a report in Taiwan-based DigiTimes (picked up by AppleInsider). Qualcomm’s 3G modems are missing from many popular smartphones, including iPhone, Palm Pre, and RIM’s BlackBerries. The iPhone currently uses a 3G chipset from Infineon.

But Qualcomm just announced the sampling of its latest Mobile Data Modem product line, which can support dual-carrier High-Speed Packet Access Plus (which is a 3GPP standard that combines adjacent carriers into one transmission) or multi-mode 3G/Long Term Evolution (LTE). Earlier this year, European mobile carrier Vodafone achieved 20Mbps download speeds in a test of HSPA+ based on Qualcomm silicon, and plans to evaluate dual-carrier to boost that still more.

Another hardware change could be a Wi-Fi speed boost. Today, iPhone users are limited to 20-25Mbps throughput with a Wi-Fi radio configured to support 802.11bg. A single-stream 11n chipset could boost Wi-Fi throughput to more than 80Mbps. Earlier this year, it was discovered that the newest iPod touch model (identical to the iPhone but without a 3G cellular radio) has a Broadcom Wi-Fi chip that can support single-stream 11n, though it’s not currently activated by Apple.

It’s possible a new model could combine new hardware components cooperating with a new hardened iPhone operating system to prevent the iPhone from being unlocked from a carrier’s network, which in the U.S. is AT&T Communications Inc. Apple recently advertised for a senior level software engineer to lead a team focused on secure OS booting and installation, and cryptographic services among other security-related charges.

Another recent job posting is seeking a software engineer for the iPhone Maps team, which is focused not only on embedding an interactive map in an iPhone app but also on furthering an array of new, more sophisticated location-based services that draw on the phone’s GPS and compass capabilities.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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