Apple's iPhone 13 has a lot to live up to after the iPhone 12's success

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

The tech giant is expected to offer new iPhones on Sept. 14 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 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.

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, a better screen and potentially new colors.

"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.

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 profits 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.

"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."

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