Rumors have it coming any time between late June and early 2012. Does it matter? Um, yes.
In early spring the folks who obsess about Apple (aapl) are usually busy speculating about what features to expect in the next iteration of the iPhone -- a game neatly summarized in an infographic produced by the French site Nowhere Else, from which the image at right was taken.
But this year, reports that there will be no iPhone 5 announced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June has launched a whole new level of speculation, not about what Apple is building, but when it will arrive.
In notes issued to clients Tuesday, Susquehanna's Jeff Fidacaro said his checks "confirm" a delay until fall, Merrill Lynch's Scott Craig pronounced the delay "not likely," and Ticonderoga's Brian White advised investors not to get "hung up" on the exact date. Any sales Apple misses in one quarter, White says, are likely to get picked up the next.
Perhaps. But with a pack of Google (goog) Android phones breathing down its neck, Apple can't wait forever.
With that in mind, we've put together an annotated timeline of the iPhone 5 launch rumors. See below the fold.
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- Feb. 11, 14: Bloomberg Businessweek and the Wall Street Journal separately report that Apple is preparing two new iPhones: 1) a successor to the iPhone 4 and 2) a smaller, cheaper iPhone for release "this summer." The reports are perfectly timed to disrupt the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which Apple did not attend. Credibility: medium.
- March 28: The Loop's Jim Dalrymple, a former Macworld news editor with good Apple sources, reports that the company has "closed the door" on any hardware announcements at the June 6 WWDC keynote, which is where new iPhones have been announced every year since 2007. Credibility: high.
- March 30: Two Wall Street analysts warn clients that summer may come and go without a new iPhone; Apple shares takes a hit. Dalrymple clarifies privately that his sources did not rule out an iPhone announcement in another venue besides WWDC. Credibility: medium.
- April 4: A Korean website, ETNews.co.kr, claims that Apple has "confirmed" that the iPhone 5 will be released the fourth week of June, according to MacRumors. Dalrymple's sources shoot down the report as "completely false." Credibility: low.
- April 8: Ticonderoga's Brian White, reporting from the Far East, tells clients he is becoming increasingly suspicious of reports of a fall launch. He doesn't have a smoking gun, but says there is a "pattern of activity in motion within the supply chain" that makes him question the widely reported delay. Apple may be keeping its iPhone 5 cards "extra close to the vest," he suggests, to avoid a fall-off of iPhone 4 sales as June approaches. Credibility: medium.
- April 11: An unsigned report from Avian Securities, a Boston-based firm we're not familiar with, tells clients that that production for the iPhone 5 will begin in September -- consistent with a fall launch, although Avian doesn't say so. Instead, it changes the subject and reports that specs for the smaller iPhone that the Journal and Businessweek were writing about in February still haven't arrived, which suggests "a very late 2011 or more likely a 2012 event." Several accounts of the Avian note conflate the two reports and suggest that the iPhone 5 might be pushed back to next year. Apple shares take another hit. Credibility: low.
We asked Jim Dalrymple -- who started this all -- where he would put his money. "It's definitely not coming in June, so that's out," he says. "I think we'll see it before the holiday shopping season."
That sounds like a good bet.
Also on Fortune.com:
[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]