Tim Cook finally gets his chance to stride out from under Steve Jobs’ shadow, and he could not have picked a better time or device to mark his unofficial debut as Apple Inc’s CEO.

 

The latest generation of the iPhone — still the smartphone industry’s gold standard after four years — is expected to see the light of day this Tuesday, just in time for the holidays.

The so-called iPhone 5 is widely expected to have a bigger touchscreen and faster processor than the current iPhone 4, which helped the company stay a step ahead of rivals in an increasingly competitive smartphone market.

Its challenge will be to “wow” consumers with yet more game-changing innovations and top itself. The aging iPhone 4 is still an unqualified blockbuster: with more than 20 million sold in the third quarter that ended June 25 alone, it is likely to become the world’s top-selling smartphone.

Cook is likely to take the stage at Apple central at Cupertino’s 1 Infinite Loop, where Wall Street will get a chance to see first-hand how the acknowledged operations maven fares at a major product launch. Although a highly regarded executive, he is not known for pitching products.

Cook has said China is a key market. The world’s most valuable technology company has mostly catered to the higher end of a booming market in those countries, but is now trying to release a cheaper phone, sources told Reuters in August.

The iPhone is currently sold by AT&T Inc and Verizon Wireless, a venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc. Many analysts expect Sprint will become the third U.S. operator to sell the iPhone when the next version is launched.

The new phone is also expected to accelerate the momentum in Apple shares, which are trading at around $381, off a record high of $422.86. The stock remains a far cry from brokerage price targets that range from an average of $490 to a high of $666.

Speculation about the new iPhone’s features is fevered, with the list of possibilities ranging from faster wireless Internet connectivity to voice-navigation capabilities.