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iPhone 5 prepares to take flight: Will it soar above rivals?

Apple's iPhone 5 isn't likely to win feature-set comparisons with its competitors, but it doesn't need to in order to be a success.

Illustration by James Martin/CNET

Now that the date has been confirmed, September 12 could be a historic day for Apple. The iPhone will get more than a bigger screen and faster connectivity, which many competitors already have. It will also sprout wings and fly like a drone, capturing images in flight and returning to its owner like a homing pigeon, with autogenerated trip narration by Siri.

People expect big things from an Apple product launch. Perhaps not an iPhone drone -- but even if it doesn't sprout wings, the iPhone 5 will generate tweets and buzz that reverberate throughout the Internet on September 12. (CNET will have full coverage of the launch event starting at 9 a.m. PT.)

Will the new iPhone blow away the competition with its comely features? Unlikely, based on what's been widely rumored over the last year: a screen 12 percent bigger than its predecessor's, 4G LTE support, a smaller dock plug, a longer-lasting battery, and some other bells and whistles. Some of these features have been standard on phones from rivals, but the Apple loyalists and status seekers have been patiently waiting for the next coming.

As CNET's Kent German wrote about the iPhone 4S after its release:

Android fans are right: the iPhone 4S adds features that competing smartphones introduced months ago. But that misses the point. It doesn't have everything, but Apple's attention to the user experience remains unmatched. Some consider that focus a worthy trade-off for a regulated and locked-down device, while others prefer more control. Apple's philosophy isn't necessarily right, but it may be right for you. And if so, the iPhone 4S won't disappoint.

Piper Jaffray equities analyst Gene Munster predicts that sales of the new iPhone will be of historic proportions -- the "largest consumer-electronics product upgrade in history," he said. Apple could sell between 6 million and 10 million new iPhones during the last 10 days of September, according to Munster's calculations (speculation is that the device will be available to consumers September 21).

As with past iPhone launches, this next generation will probably attract some new converts, but it will primarily feed the souls of the converted -- owners of older iPhones -- as well as pull in people who are seeking a less perplexing buying experience.

According to an August survey from TechBargains, more than 70 percent of iPhone 4 and 3G owners plan at some point to upgrade, as well as 64 percent of 4S owners. Among the unconverted, 22 percent of Android phone users and, unsurprisingly, 38 percent of BlackBerry users expressed interest in buying the iPhone 5, according to the survey.

In July, the iPhone picked up some U.S. market share over the previous three months, as did devices running Google's Android OS, while other players lost share, according to ComScore. That trend should continue with the iPhone 5, but it will get more challenging to bring in new converts in 2013, after the initial iPhone 5 frenzy abates and as Android and Windows 8 phone makers, and even RIM, become more aggressive in introducing new, and perhaps innovative, products -- Apple's various lawsuits notwithstanding.

Top Smartphone Platforms: Total U.S. smartphone subscribers ages 13+. Three month average ending July 2012 vs. 3 month average ending April 2012 comScore MobiLens

Of course, Apple's business does just fine with one in three domestic smartphone subscribers, and there's plenty of room to grow. Just over half of U.S. subscribers have a smartphone at this juncture, and worldwide less than 40 percent of mobile handsets sold in 2012 will be smartphones, according to IDC. China and India, for example, each have about 1 billion mobile subscriptions, and the vast majority are nonsmartphone. For Apple and its rivals, the battle has just begun.

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