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iPhone 5: What if it's not the best phone ever?

Today in San Francisco, at 18:00 our time, Apple will unveil the most anticipated device of the year, the iPhone 5.

Since its inception in 2007, the iPhone has blazed the smartphone trail, leading from the front with innovative design, software, and hardware. In the last couple of years, though, Apple’s technological supremacy has begun to wane. Few would argue that the iPhone 4, with its Retina display, was best-in-class in 2010 – but fast forward to today and the landscape is very different indeed, with almost every smartphone maker giving Apple a run for its money.

For five years, Apple has dictated mobile computing trends – but today the tables are turned, and for the first time Apple must play catch-up. Today, if it wishes to retain its title as the king of smartphones, Apple will finally have to admit that its 3.5in display is too small, and that Android’s larger, 16:9 displays are the way forward. Today, if the Cupertino company wishes to be more than just a purveyor of beautiful House of Ive curios, it will finally jump on the LTE and NFC bandwagons.

Of course, at this point, after a decade-long run of industry-defining unveils and no more than one or two dud products, no one in their right mind actually expects Apple to fail later on today. In all likelihood, Apple will take a long hard look at the Android and Windows Phone 8 smartphones on the market, and then dismissively stomp them into the ground with an octo-core, super-Retina iPhone 5 forged from an alloy of mithril and unicorn tears.

But, please, just for a moment, indulge the maniacal machinations of a mad man. What if the iPhone 5 isn’t the best phone the world has ever seen? What if its screen is smaller and lower resolution than the latest Samsung or HTC superphone? What if, like the iPhone 4S, the iPhone 5 is a bit on the chunky side? What if the iPhone 5’s SoC contains a humdrum quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU, and a GPU that can’t keep up with the latest Mali-T604? What if iOS 6 is a nice upgrade, but lacks the killer features of WP8 or Android?

If the iPhone is no longer the best or most desirable phone on the market, it will suddenly become a lot harder for Apple to attract new customers. There are two reasons for Apple’s continuing control of the smartphone and tablet markets, despite its exorbitant prices: Its devices really are that good, and its third-party software and hardware ecosystem is second to none. Today, its ecosystem advantage over Android is almost non-existent – and in the face of devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Samsung Galaxy S III, it is going to be tough for Apple to retain its technological crown.

Apple is hugely rich and has the best supply chain in the world – but it is just one company with a finite number of employees. It is unrealistic to think that Apple will somehow, for all eternity, successfully fight off the competition. Apple has had an incredible ride – it is almost unheard of for a company to sell a premium, 30 per cent profit margin product in mass market quantities for five years – but at some point, possibly today with the launch of the iPhone 5, that stratospheric rollercoaster will grind to a halt.

We don’t have long to wait to find out exactly what the next-generation Apple smartphone has up its sleeve. We’ll be covering the iPhone 5 launch live at 18:00, and meantime, you can read our round-up of the latest key articles detailing the speculation and build-up to the launch.