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Just as the iPad mini is a full iPad at a lower price, so too has an iPhone mini long been an expectation, with a news report quoting secret sources saying a cheaper iPhone could well be coming.

When you look at the world of Android smartphones, you see everything from sub-$99 pre-paid models through to the highest-end quad-core big-screen models that command premium pricing, in hundreds if not thousands of variations.

iPhones, on the other hand, come in set models, with the “cheaper” iPhones to date having been previous flagship models from earlier years, helping Apple to avoid creating specific new designs, while keeping much higher profit margins than race-to-the-bottom Android cheapies.

Although rumours of an iPhone mini have been around for years, especially in the light of the Android invasion and its ever-more stunning aggregate market share, 2013 may well be the year the rumours finally turn to reality.

The source of all this renewed iPhone mini excitement is the Wall Street Journal, which quotes naturally anonymous “people briefed on the matter”, although whether these people were wearing briefs, boxers or something else wasn’t disclosed.

WSJ’s report reveals some very interesting and obviously completely unofficial information, including the news that this new model is theoretically due “later this year”, that it might be built with a “polycarbonate plastic” shell rather than chamfered aluminium and glass, or some other inexpensive body design and materials.

There’s also the suggestion that many of the parts “could remain the same” as used in existing iPhones, although this is hardly a surprise given any iPhone mini or at least cheaper iPhone would have to be able to run all of today’s App Store apps, and run them without issues.

Among a stack of other market share and smartphone stats worth reading, the WSJ report also suggests that Apple’s plans for a cheaper iPhone stretch back to 2009, with designs for inexpensive iPhones made in 2010 and the iPhone 4.

However, we then learn that, while some executives were for the idea, others were against it, with the compromise being the much cheaper and faster route of simply converting superseded flagship models into cheaper iPhones.

Unfortunately, although Apple markets the iPhone 5 from US $199 in the US on a two-year contract, the iPhone 4S for $99 on a two-year contract and an iPhone 4 “free” on a two year contract, actual pricing for iPhones outright still costs several hundred dollars, at prices far higher than the sub $99 to say $300 price-point for lower-end Androids.

There’s obviously a massive opportunity for Apple to sell an iPhone mini at sub $300 pre-paid prices, which while still more expensive than $99 and up Androids, give people a reason to stretch for the more consistent iPhone experience and grander iOS App Store library.

Clearly, an iPhone mini at that price would still be out of the reach or interest of some, but it could, if launched instead of scrapped, re-ignite iPhone sales in countries like China alongside “emerging” markets where iPhones are simply too expensive.

So… WSJ’s report, if true, signals a big shake-up for Apple in 2013, with a lower-end iPhone, and an iPhone with a larger screen than the 4-inches seen on the iPhone 5 today, while presumably continuing to sell the 4-inch iPhone 5 model at a lower price than it does today.

A newspaper or online report isn’t a guarantee of anything, but it’s very interesting timing coming at it does during the madness of CES, shining a big spotlight on Apple right when every other company is paying big bucks to be at CES.

We’ll obviously see in a few months whether this report was right or wrong, but the time seems more right than ever for a more affordable iPhone to arrive, whether dubbed the iPhone mini or something else, but this mini rumour could well turn into a story and reality of maximal proportions.

Next up? Look out for curiously smaller-looking iPhones, especially unattended in Californian bars – unless a fuzzy image purporting to be a secret iPhone mini photo leaks out to the Internet first!

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

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One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks, including stints as presenter of Ch 10’s Internet Bright Ideas, Ch 7’s Room for Improvement and tech expert on Ch 9’s Today Show, among many other news and current affairs programs.

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