It’s October 4th, 2011, and Apple is hosting its highly anticipated iPhone event. SVP of Marketing Phil Schiller is on stage, and after about 5 minutes of discussing changes to the iPod line, he utters the words that everyone has been waiting to hear: “Next, iPhone.”

A sense of disappointment spread throughout the tech world as Schiller went on to unveil a familiar-looking iPhone 4S. Where was this teardrop-shaped iPhone 5 that we had been hearing so much about? With the bigger screen, and LTE? What about all of those leaked cases?

Of course, the 4S would go on to be a huge hit for Apple. But the whole experience has left a lot of consumers with low expectations for this year’s iPhone release. Well it’s time to raise them. There are actually a few reasons why you should be excited about Apple’s next handset…

Pattern

The iPhone 4S really shouldn’t have been as big of a surprise as it was to everyone. Over the past few years, a pattern has developed in the way Apple has handled iPhone updates. Think about it, iPhone 3G > 3GS > 4 > 4S — major update, minor update, major update, minor update.

So why does Apple do this? It could be related to carrier contracts. The average cell phone customer can get a subsidized handset every two years, so it could be that Apple has made this its timeline for major iPhone updates. Ie: it’s easier to buy a handset on a two-year contract if you’re not worried about it being completely obsolete in 12 months. Also, the decision could have something to do with Moore’s law, which says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. How can Apple dramatically update the iPhone every year, if the technology inside is only updated every two?

Regardless of the reasoning behind it, the pattern is evident. And if Apple continues that pattern with this year’s release, the next iPhone should be a major update.

Evidence

Other than a number of third-party cases, we really didn’t see a whole lot of physical evidence last year supporting the ‘iPhone 5’ theory. There were no radically different-looking leaked components, or display panels. Nothing. In fact, most of the parts we did see looked a lot like iPhone 4 parts. Go figure.

This year, however, that’s just not the case. We’ve actually seen a ton of evidence suggesting that the next iPhone will look different than the current model, from 4-inch display panels to engineering samples and schematics. And let’s not forget those two-tone back panels that keep popping up.

All of these components come from different sources, but all of them point to a similar design — an iPhone with a part-glass, part-aluminum back panel and a larger 4-inch display. Keep in mind, these are all likely prototype parts. But it’s still evidence that Apple is working on a new design for its next smartphone. Which, once again, suggests that this year’s iPhone will be a significant update.

Pressure

To say that Apple is under a lot of pressure to deliver a hit smartphone this year is a massive understatement. This will be the company’s first handset since Steve Jobs passed. And even though it’s believed that he played a large part in its development, his absence will be on everyone’s minds. Can Apple deliver a hit product without its beloved visionary?

Also keep in mind that Apple sold 37 million handsets during the quarter following the iPhone 4S release last year. So to top that, which it’s expected to do, Apple has to sell in upwards of 40 million phones during the 2012 holiday season. That means that it has to essentially convince 40 million people that its new iPhone is better than the competitions’ handsets, which, by the way, are looking better than ever.

Samsung unveiled its latest flagship handset, the Galaxy S III, back in May of this year. And it’s already believed to have sold over 10 million of them. Factor in the new Android 4.1 JellyBean update, which has been getting rave reviews, and the expected onslaught of new Windows Phone 8 hardware this fall, and you can see that Apple needs to come up big with its next iPhone to maintain marketshare.

Conclusion

All of these things combine for a pretty good argument on why we should expect a major update to Apple’s smartphone line this year. The pattern is there. The evidence is there. And the pressure?

The iPhone is Apple’s baby. It’s the company’s best-selling product, with the highest profit margins. And even though it’s sold extremely well in the past, as Nokia and RIM have proven, that can change in an instant. With the competition hotter this year than ever before, Apple doesn’t just want its next iPhone to be a hit, it needs it to be. What Tim Cook’s team unveils this October will set the tone for the rest of the CEO’s tenure, and the company’s immediate future.

Oh yeah, I’d say the pressure’s definitely there.