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iPhone 13 has big shoes to fill. What will Apple's next big thing be, now that 5G is old news?

The iPhone 12 was a big success. A year later, Apple's challenge is to recapture that attention for the iPhone 13.

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Apple's iPhone 12 was one of its bestsellers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Last year, Apple tapped 5G wireless as the key new feature of the iPhone 12, promising faster downloads and more reliability. With this year's iPhone, Apple may be looking to the heavens for its next big breakthrough.

The tech giant is expected to offer new iPhones today that could include technology for making emergency phone calls even without a cellular signal. The new feature, which reportedly will rely on a chip designed to talk to low-orbit satellites, may not arrive this year, according to earlier reporting by Bloomberg. Regardless, the new iPhone is expected to still rely on 5G wireless technology for day-to-day connectivity.

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If announced this year, the new feature could help Apple's latest iPhone stand apart even though it'll have a similar look to last year's device, save for a rumored smaller notch for the front-facing camera and sensors. Other rumored features include an upgraded camera and a better screen. There are also potentially new colors rumored, and a new 1TB storage option.

"The challenge is getting the same level of attention and creating a cycle of upgrades," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies. But, she said, Apple has a knack for coming up with something for fans to get excited about.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment ahead of the company's event.

Read more: Apple Sept. 14 event: How to watch the expected iPhone 13, Apple Watch 7 launch live

This year's launch will mark another test for Apple, which already counts a billion iPhones actively being used around the world. And the phone's popularity continues to grow. Last year's iPhone 12 was such a hit that it pushed Apple's sales and profit to new records, even though the device launched in the middle of one of the worst health and economic crises in a century. The iPhone 13's job will be to help Apple keep the momentum going, even with a pandemic that stubbornly won't go away.

Historically, the hype around new iPhones seems muted when the outward design remains the same. Apple somewhat acknowledges this, adding an "S" to the name of these inner-changed iPhones, starting with 2009's iPhone 3GS, which the company originally said stood for "speed." And though some critics might say the S stands for "snooze," Apple has used these off-year iPhones to introduce new marquee features.

When it launched a decade ago, the iPhone 4S introduced the Siri voice assistant. The iPhone 5S, in 2013, introduced the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. The iPhone XS offered a "markedly improved dual camera," CNET reviewer Scott Stein wrote on its 2018 debut. (But it was the iPhone XR, released the same year, that stole the show, with a compelling cheaper price tag in exchange for a lower-quality screen and camera.)

Whether Apple calls its next iPhone the iPhone 12S or the iPhone 13, as the internet seems to have already christened it, won't matter. What'll matter is whether Apple can pack enough into the device to hit the mark after one of its biggest iPhone launches ever, last year.

The good news for the company is that it already appears to have a head start. A survey by SellCell, a phone reseller, found that 44% of current iPhone owners plan to upgrade to one of the four reported iPhone 13 models when they launch. That alone could amount to tens of millions of iPhones.

Read more: iPhone 13: Stylish color options and new design may be revealed at Apple's Sept. 14 event

"Apple does an amazing job making hit products seemingly year after year, like a pop band," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis research. And just like any band, he added, some releases may not hit the general population the same way a smash album does. "They're still OK, and still important to fans. That's probably what we'll see with the iPhone 13."

Apple Watch boost

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The Apple Watch has become more than merely an accessory for the iPhone.

CNET

Part of Apple's success has been thanks to companion products like the Apple Watch, which starts at $279, and the company's AirPods wireless earbuds, which start at $159. That ecosystem of interconnecting products and services has helped create a behemoth of industry.

So it's worth noting that though the iPhone may not have many physical changes this year, the Apple Watch reportedly will.

Leaks suggest the Apple Watch 7, as it may be called, will come in 41mm and 45mm sizes, up slightly from the 40mm and 44mm offered today. That slight increase is expected to account for a new, flat-edge design, marking a significant shift from the curved edges Apple has used since the device's 2015 launch. Reports from Bloomberg and from Apple leakers suggest the screen's bezels may also shrink, allowing for more viewable screen area.

Though the Apple Watch doesn't sell anywhere near as well as the iPhone -- Apple doesn't even publish individual revenue for the device -- it reportedly sells better than the entire output of the Swiss watch industry. And it's become a key halo device for iPhones, with Apple saying 75% of purchasers are buying their first Apple Watch.

"Traditional Swiss watch makers, like Swatch and Tissot, are losing the smartwatch wars," Neil Mawston, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, wrote in a report last year. "Apple is delivering a better product through deeper retail channels and appealing to younger consumers who increasingly want digital wristwear."

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Last year was all about 5G for Apple.

Apple

5G still making waves

Apple observers saw a sure bet with the iPhone 12 when it launched last year. The tech giant was finally adopting superfast 5G wireless, playing off a culmination of years of hype from mobile carriers. Now, a year later, Apple CEO Tim Cook said he believes last year's record iPhone sales were just the start of 5G wireless upgrades.

"We're only in the early innings of 5G," Cook said during a conference call with analysts this summer. One data point he noted was that people around the world, and the US, still don't have easy access to 5G signals. That gives people less reason to upgrade now and potentially more reason to buy when the signals arrive.

While the carriers boast 5G coverage across the nation, the speeds are often disappointing relative to marketing hype. Consumers haven't rushed to embrace the technology, and many people still don't have the new wireless signals available around their homes. But the carriers have been steadily upgrading their networks, improving on those early lackluster experiences. Both the iPhone 12 and its newer sibling stand to benefit from those coming changes. 

Satellite connectivity could also offer an extra incentive to help the iPhone stand out from the pack. It remains to be seen whether this is a regular perk or more of an emergency-use feature, as rumors suggest.

What's certain is that Apple will be sure to tout some feature of the iPhone 13 as a breakthrough that makes the device the next must-have product. But with a similar design, and an S-type year, that could be a tough sell, even when it comes to the most loyal Apple fan.