Apple may be planning to release a 3G (third-generation cell-phone technology) version of its hugely popular iPhone as early as the middle of the year, according to reports.

An industry analyst's note reports that Apple has lined up the German chipmaker Infineon Technologies to supply parts for its next-generation phone, and may release the product as soon as June or July.

Speculation has been fuelled by the reports that Apple has begun to reduce its focus on the current iPhone platform — which runs on the slower 2.5G cellular high-speed network known as EDGE — in favor of developing software for the newer device.

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Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, has previously hinted that a 3G version of the device could hit the shelves later this year. A June launch would come 12 months after the iPhone's initial release in the U.S.

The 3G iPhone is expected to trigger a flurry of sales to fans who are enamored of the iPhone but feel that its most innovative features — such as the Web browser — are hampered by the slower network.

The UBS analyst, Ben Reitzes, also predicted that the business appeal of the iPhone will be improved with the release of a new software kit that will allow developers to write applications for the iPhone — much as they do for the networking site Facebook.

“We believe new features could help address issues that are limiting iPhone penetration in the enterprise," including compatibility with Microsoft's e-mail applications, Reitzes said.

A separate note issued by Morgan Stanley suggested that Apple could be on the cusp of some major announcements because Jobs had been traveling more than usual.

In the past three financial quarters, Jobs had spent $550,000 on air travel — nearly three times more than the average spent over the past year and a half, a Morgan Stanley analyst wrote.

Because Jobs was "integral" to any negotiations with phone networks vying to win the contract to supply the iPhone, the extra travel was likely to relate to the release of the iPhone in new countries, including in Asia and Europe.

"We'd point to a 34 per cent year-on-year increase in R&D and 170 per cent year-on-year increase in Steve Jobs' airplane expense in the December quarter as signs Apple is preparing for meaningful product launches," the analyst, Kathryn Huberty, wrote.

Apple is due to unveil a "software roadmap" for the iPhone at a meeting at its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., next week.

Yesterday Apple shares gained more than 4 per cent on the back of optimism that the company can counteract the effects of an economic downturn by encouraging software developers to write applications for its iPhone, triggering greater demand for the device.

After a meeting with Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, on Wednesday, David Bailey, an analyst at Goldman Sachs, said: "Apple's industry-leading product cycles should help it overcome softer seasonality and sets the stock up for a strong second half."