Apple's annual rumour season is reaching its peak, and the web is packed with great expectations.
If the rumours are true, we'll soon get a new iPhone (maybe to be called iPhone 5), a mini-iPad, both, or a variant of the two. The smart money is on a September launch.
Then there's secret product photos, which depending on your perspective, are enthralling or disappointing. It's emotional theatre that drive's Apple's marketing machine.
But this time around there's a distinctly serious tone, quite unlike years past.
Apple faces an uncomfortable question. Will the next generation iPhone and iPad be good enough?
Sure, they'll still sell by the container load. But that's not the point. Devices such as Samsung's Galaxy SIII and a growing army of 7 inch form-factor Android and Windows-based tablets have seen many people re-think long-held Apple loyalties.
Research company Canalys illustrated the point on August 2 with a report stating five Android-based smartphones were shipped globally for every two iPhones sold.
It's a serious problem for Apple, not dissimilar to the Soviet-era arms race with two superpowers, Apple and Google's Android, vying for global dominance.
Or perhaps it has the makings of history repeating itself. In the 1980's and early 1990's Apple pursued quality and profits, rather than outright marketshare. Microsoft seized the moment and the rest is history.
The lesson wasn't lost on Apple, which in recent times has gained both marketshare and outstanding profit results. For example, it makes more money per device than its competitors - court documents from its legal battle against Samsung revealed iPhone margins of more than 50 per cent.
However, the issue now is simply one of precedent. In years past, the hype and rumours didn't disappoint.
But in 2011, the iPhone 4S arrived and it wasn't a complete knock out. It looked the same as the previous generation, and although it had a better processor, its Siri voice recognition system looked impressive in TV commercials, but struggled in real life.
Then there was “antennagate,” an episode of technical issues where holding the iPhone 4 in a certain position caused call dropouts. Apple resolved the issue with a settlement for each qualified person who had difficulties.
Not the greatest backdrop for a new season of rumours.
So this time around the Apple faithful are hoping for a better result. If not, Apple risks losing its competitive edge, or worse: giving the impression of a slow-moving incumbent.
“The biggest threat Apple faces is not refreshing its product line fast enough,” says Rodney Gedda, an analyst with Telsyte.
The message is clear: Apple needs a next-generation leap in performance and design that again sets it clear from the pack.
And in that context, speculation about Apple's plans for the 7 inch tablet market have taken on added weight.
“If a multitude of different form-factor Android and Windows devices gain mass market appeal, then we might see different sized iPhones and iPads sooner, rather than later,” says Mr Gedda.
It that happens it will be an about face. When Apple launched its iPad on January 27, 2010, its 9.7 inch form-factor set the mold for competitors. Asked about the potential for a smaller iPad, Apple's late chief executive, Steve Jobs, said the only way a smaller screen device would work was if people sanded their fingertips to fit the display.
But it looks like Mr Jobs was wrong. Although smaller form tablets have been on the market for a while, Google, with its Nexus 7, appears to have hit the sweet spot with a seven inch screen running the latest version of its Android operating system, code-named Jelly Bean.
The warm reception for Google's tablet has rekindled speculation that Apple, regardless of what Steve Jobs thought, may join the seven inch market with an “iPad mini” by the end of this year.
“The increased number of 7 inch tablets being introduced to the market will help cater for those who require a portable device primarily for content consumption purposes,” says Yee-Kuan Lau, an analyst at IDC.
“If Apple were to join this space it will help further the growth rate of the tablet market in Australia,” he added.
But it's a risky strategy as Telsyte's Mr Gedda observes. A smaller iPad or larger iPhone could “fragment” apps across both devices.
Fragmentation, where apps work on one device or screen resolution but not another, is a problem that's dogged Google's Android for years.
Google's ecosystem stack of operating system, apps and content doesn't work on every Android device, in part because it doesn't control the hardware.
Microsoft for its part is going out of its way to avoid the issue with Windows Phone, and its forthcoming Surface tablet. Only a few manufacturers are able to manufacture devices for the operating system, and Microsoft has issued strict guidelines to ensure apps work regardless of competing handsets.
Rumour mill keeps rolling
Meanwhile, the Apple machine will keep rolling through sheer inertia. Control of the complete ecosystem from hardware to content and cloud service is ensuring everything “just works.”
That has appeal, for now. As do the rumours that Apple CEO Tim Cook tacitly acknowledged remain a vital ingredient.
Commenting on rumours in his July Q3 earnings call, Cook said they were “the great thing about this country; people can say what they think … I'm glad people want the next thing. I'm super happy about it.” An upbeat view on a serious subject.