Calling Apple the largest listed company in the world today is a bit of an understatement. It was recently revealed that Apple is twice as big as the second largest company in the world, ExxonMobil, with a market value of some $774 billion (£500 billion).
Without doubt the key driver for Apple's phenomenal recent success has been its iPhone range. Launched in September 2014, the iPhone 6 and its super-sized variant the iPhone 6 Plus have set some stunning records for the company.
Apple reports that it sold 74.5 million iPhones during the first quarter of its 2015 financial year. This served to rake in revenue of $74.6 billion (£48 billion).
To place the iPhone's recent success in a more localised context, Apple's singular smartphone brand overtook Google's Android platform in terms of US market share during the fourth quarter of 2014, according to Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.
Bear in mind that while there are only ever three or four models of the iPhone being actively sold at any one time (and all at a premium price) there are dozens of Android phones being sold by many established tech brands across a whole range of price points.
Meanwhile in China, a country of some 500 million smartphone users, the iPhone 6 became the best-selling phone of Q4, according to research firm Canalys. Apple had never climbed higher than fourth place in the country before, with local loyalty to the country's own brands typically strong.
It's all the more remarkable given that the iPhone 6 costs double the amount of flagship devices make by Xiaomi, Huawei, and Lenovo.
With all this in mind, it begs the question: where next for the iPhone? While Apple will launch its next phone from a position of unprecedented strength, that also means that there's extra pressure on the next iPhone to be awesome.
iPhone 6S or iPhone 7?
First, let's deal with the likely name of Apple's next smartphone. It will almost certainly be called the iPhone 6S rather than the iPhone 7.
We come to this conclusion not because of any insider knowledge or leaked information, but from observing Apple's pattern of iPhone releases.
Ever since the iPhone 3GS followed on from the iPhone 3G (the first feature-complete iPhone) in 2009, Apple has alternated full-numbered releases with S-labelled variants.
The year after the iPhone 4, we got the iPhone 4S. After the iPhone 5 we had the iPhone 5S. It stands to reason that a year on from the iPhone 6 launch, we'll see the iPhone 6S.
Apple's philosophy here is about more than just a simple naming scheme. Its smartphone design work operates on a two year cycle, with the full-numbered releases representing major leaps forward in external appearance. S handsets are always essentially the same (or very similar) as their predecessors from the outside, but with improvements to their internal components.
This is an S year, so don't expect the iPhone 6S to offer anything radical on the scale of the iPhone 6's bigger display or the iPhone 4's stunning redesign.
Of course, we should also note that there are rumours concerning an iPhone 7 release later in the year. According to alleged supply chain sources of the Stabley Times, Apple is looking to accelerate to a six month turn-around on its phones, essentially offering a full-numbered release every year.
This would mean that the iPhone 6S would launch in April (more on this later), with the typical September/October release window occupied by a full-on iPhone 7 update.
It's an interesting suggestion, and in many ways a logical step forward for Apple. But given the lack of corroborating claims, it's not one we can give too much credence to at this point.
Either way, the iPhone 6S is what's next for Apple's smartphone range.
What to expect from the iPhone 6S
We've discussed why the next iPhone will be the iPhone 6S and not the iPhone 7, and that this will mean a virtually identical handset design to the iPhone 6. So what will be different?
Given the aforementioned probability of an identical design, we can count out any change to the iPhone 6S's display. It will be the same 4.7-inch 1334 x 750 IPS LCD screen as can be found in the iPhone 6.
We can't even see Apple upgrading the protective material covering the iPhone 6S display, given the bankruptcy last year of its former sapphire glass partner, and the subsequent repurposing of its production facility.
It's internally where we're expecting things to move on from the iPhone 6. Following on from the A6 CPU found in the iPhone 5, the A7 in the iPhone 5S, and the Apple A8 CPU found in the iPhone 6, you can bet your bottom dollar that the iPhone 6S will run on a new and improved A9 chip. Like the previous design point, this is just what Apple does, and there's absolutely no reason to believe that it's about to change that.
According to Recode, among other sources, Apple has signed an agreement with Samsung to produce these A9 chips for its next iPhone, largely thanks to the Korean company's success in shrinking the production process down to 14 nanometers. Small chips create less heat, making them more energy efficient.
As for performance, a rough indicator can be gleaned from ARM Holdings - the company that produces the core chip blueprints that Apple (and almost every other mobile chip maker) bases its own CPUs on.
ARM announced in early February that its new Cortex-A72 processor design would be 3.5 times more powerful than comparable chips from 2014, as well as being 75% more energy efficient.
Apple heavily customises its own chips, of course, but at least now we know the kind of raw performance gains that could be on the cards for the A9.
Another component that could be improved in the iPhone 6S is its Touch ID fingerprint sensor. According to KGI Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (a pretty solid source for Apple predictions) Apple will launch the iPhone 6S with an upgraded Touch ID module. This will apparently provide "a better and safer Apple Pay user experience with reduced reading errors."
Talking of touch-feely technology, The Economic Daily News reckons that Apple is going to fit the next iPhone out with similar '3D touch' technology to that soon to be seen in the Apple Watch. This would mean that the iPhone 6S's display could detect the pressure you're putting on the screen as well as your finger's movement across it.
The report seems confident that Apple is sourcing the components from American manufacturer Avago Tech. We can't see such an advanced feature making its way into an iterative iPhone 6S update, for the reasons stated above. Maybe the brand new iPhone 7?
Finally, we should consider an increasingly important component for any new iPhone - its camera. Back in November, renowned Apple commentator John Gruber claimed to have heard that the iPhone 6S camera would represent "the biggest camera jump ever" for the range. Rumour has it that it will utilise a "two-lens system" for the rear snapper, which apparently "takes it up into SLR quality imagery."
This dual-lens rumour reared its head again in January, so there's clearly something going on here. Whether we'll see this big step forward in the iPhone 6S or will have to wait until the iPhone 7 remains to be seen.
Will we see an iPhone 6C?
Somewhat removed from the whole iPhone 6S and iPhone 7 hullabaloo, one rumour that seems to have cropped up from time to time ever since the iPhone 6's release is that Apple will provide a belated follow-up to the iPhone 5C in 2015. It should be noted that this is largely based on speculation at this point, with virtually nothing in the way of compelling evidence to back it up.
Still, there is a case to be made for an iPhone 6C, largely through looking at the status of the iPhone 5C.
Apple opted not to make an iPhone 6C last year, as it focused instead on introducing the larger, more expensive iPhone 6 Plus. However, this has left a gap in its roster for an up-to-date cheaper option. The iPhone 5C is 18 months old now, while the iPhone 5S remains a premium phone despite its similar age, and can't simply be given a dramatic price drop without slicing into Apple's profit margins.
No less compelling is the anecdotal evidence that a sizeable minority of iPhone fans continue to prefer the old 4-inch form factor abandoned with the release of the iPhone 6.
There's one not inconsiderable counter-argument here. The iPhone 5C didn't sell particularly well, at least initially. Back in June, some eight months on from the iPhone 5C's release, a Forbes article estimated that Apple had sold 24 million iPhone 5C handsets. Not bad, but certainly not great either when you consider the iPhone 6 figures we mentioned earlier.
Of course, this underperformance prompted Apple to release a lower capacity, cheaper 8GB model in March, and the 5C range sold reasonably well in the lead-up to the iPhone 6 launch. Indeed, Kantar Worldpanel ComTech reported that the iPhone 5C was Britain's best selling smartphone during August.
The kind of people who bought this cheaper model didn't necessarily care that a much more advanced iPhone was imminent, or simply knew they wouldn't be able to afford it. In other words, these late iPhone 5C buyers are not typical Apple customers, and represent an appealing new market that Apple would likely want to continue to tap into.
Nevertheless, reports emerged in November that the iPhone 5C would be discontinued in mid–2015. This could be another sign that an iPhone 6C will be launched alongside the iPhone 6S, but again, it's all just speculation at this early point.
As is talk of what such an iPhone 6C would look like. Our guess is that Apple could well use the opportunity to introduce a new 4-inch model, complete with the iPhone 6's innards (or even the iPhone 5S's) and a Touch ID sensor, finally bringing Apple's fingerprint technology to the entire iPhone range.
We can expect Apple to announce iOS 9 at WWDC 2015 in June, and then to launch it alongside the iPhone 6S some time around September. Given its close link to the next iPhone, then, there's probably much that iOS 9 will be able to tell us about the iPhone 6S.
Unfortunately, virtually nothing is known about iOS 9 at this moment in time. We've speculated about what we might see, as well as what we'd like to see, but there's no concrete evidence at present.
Earlier in February, 9to5Mac claimed to have learned that iOS 9 will be called Monarch, after a Colorado ski resort. It claims that there will be fewer large feature additions this time around, with the focus instead being on improved stability and optimisation.
This tightening up of iOS running speeds, consistency, and stability could be an indicator that those aforementioned reports of an iPhone 6C are true. A new, cheaper iPhone would inevitably mean that the whole iPhone range would be running on similar 64-bit processors, helping that iOS 9 tightening-up process considerably.
As for new features, the report suggests that Apple could well focus on Apple Maps, with transit directions and indoor mapping said to be in the pipeline. This could hint at improved location sensors, though the current iPhone range appears pretty well equipped on this front already.
How the Apple Watch could set the schedule
A much better indication of where Apple might go with the next iPhone can be gleaned from its other related plans, starting with the Apple Watch. Though again, it's open to a large amount of interpretation.
As we've already discussed, there is a (slightly iffy) rumour doing the rounds that Apple will launch the iPhone 6S in the spring, just six months after the release of the iPhone 6.
The most compelling supporting argument for this to our mind (far more than Apple simply wanting to match the launch schedules of its Android rivals) is that Apple would want to release a brand new phone alongside the Apple Watch, lest consumers decide to wait until the end of the year to buy both together.
We can see why this would make a certain amount of sense. The Apple Watch is a big risk for Apple, as the company's first brand new form factor since the iPad, and one that's wholly reliant on the iPhone for its operation.
We still can't see Apple rendering the hugely popular iPhone 6 obsolete (or second rate) after just six months on the market, but the development of the Apple Watch and the timing of its release certainly gives us pause for thought.
CarPlay to drive the iPhone agenda
After the Apple Watch, Apple's CarPlay is the other iPhone-related initiative that could affect the development of the company's next smartphone.
Recent reports have raised the unexpected possibility of a full Apple Car, but before that, in 2015, we'll see Apple's plans for in-car entertainment and navigation.
Apple CarPlay is interesting because it is not a strict stand-alone in-car OS, instead integrating a user's iPhone into the set-up. Plug your iPhone in using the lightning cable, and you'll have largely hands and eyes-free access to your iPhone's functions.
This could point to a much improved Siri experience for the iPhone 6S with iOS 9. After all, if you're controlling everything to do with your phone with your voice rather just creating the odd reminder, you'll need pinpoint accuracy.
The prospect of Apple CarPlay also strengthens assertions that iOS 9 will improve the Apple Maps experience. One of the main smart functions people want in the car is reliable directions, so we're almost certain that the next iPhone will represent a massive step forward in navigation - whatever form the hardware itself takes.