Nick Bilton at The New York Times has made some progress burrowing under the walls of Apple's top secret iPhone lab. Bilton reports on the timing of the iPhone 5 release, emphasis ours:

We're just weeks away from the announcement of the new Apple iPhone 5, according to an Apple employee who asked not to be named because he was not allowed to speak publicly for the company. … 

The new iPhone will come with an eight-megapixel camera, this person said, an upgrade from the five-megapixel camera in the iPhone 4. Earlier this year Howard Stringer, Sony’s chief executive, let it slip that the next iPhone would be updated with an eight-megapixel camera made by Sony. The Apple engineer also said the new phone would have a faster A5 dual-core processor.

Bilton also addressed the curious set of photos posted Thursday on Case-Mate's website: "From descriptions I've heard of the new iPhone from Apple employees, the images seemed potentially authentic."

We're usually deeply skeptical of iPhone rumors. As we pointed out in our coverage of the leaked case photos, even accessory makers are kept in the dark about the specifications of new Apple products. Fanboy blogs like MacRumors, Apple Insider and Boy Genuis Reports do publish a lot of tips--sometimes we'll read four or five incremental updates about the iPhone release over the course of a single day. These updates tend to be sourced to people familiar with the matter, to obscure trade publications near manufacturing centers in China, or even self-appointed Apple experts with strong opinions about what the company is doing. However, the fact that Bilton's source is an Apple employee, who's addressing fresh rumors, caught our attention. We're starting to believe that the iPhone obscured by the Case-Mate shells above is the real deal.

Now about the timing. Bilton reports that we're "weeks away," a very wide window during which the Apple CEO could take the stage and pull a brand new device out of his pocket. A few days ago, CEO of France Telecom Stephan Richard gave reporters a date. "If I believe what we’ve been told, the iPhone 5 will be released Oct. 15," Richard told a group of French reporters. Even more convincing than Bilton's inside source, Richard is trustworthy because he previously leaked information about about Apple products to reports--and he was right. Twice. Earlier this year, he correctly stated that Apple was getting rid of their idea to use virtual SIM cards in their mobile devices and last year, and he confirmed the existence of an Apple tablet just a few days before the iPad was announced.

All things considered, there's still room for speculation. Nick Bilton's "weeks away" window for the announcement could lead to an even broader window for the actual release. 9-to-5 Mac reported on the heels of Bilton's late Thursday report that manufacturers were having trouble manufacturing the new, thinner, faster, better, sleeker iPhone 5. If these rumors are true, Apple would make the announcement and then leave customers waiting a few more weeks before actually releasing the newly designed phone. In the meantime, 9-to-5 Mac said, they'll release the cheaper model based on the iPhone 4 design.

There are still some things we can wonder about freely: the existence of a near-field communication reader that would enable easier mobile payments with the iPhone; a wide home button that does something impressive; the addition of Sprint to the list of carriers. After all, it wouldn't be any fun if journalists could confirm all of the rumors.