For quite a few years, Apple’s consumer electronics have been on a contant and predictable yearly update cycle; a new iPad before Easter, a new iPhone in the summer, new iPods in September.
This year, however, they are doing things a little differently.
We first saw indications that Apple were going to play around with their release schedule in February, when John Gruber theorised that Apple may surprise us all by releasing the iPad 3 in September, only six months after the (at that time unannounced) iPad 2. Not long after, we started hearing reports that the iPhone 5 would be delayed, possibly until the start of 2012.
All of these were dismissed as speculation at the time. Apple’s update cycles were constant and not to be meddled with; no iPhone in June or July was against the natural order.
Since then, evidence – and evidence, not just speculation – has been building up that Apple’s release cycle is being mangled by the company. Let’s take a look at this on a product-by-product (or product family where appropriate) basis.
Previous years have seen a consistent iPhone pattern. A preview of the new version of iOS in March or April was followed by an announcement of the new iPhone hardware at WWDC in June, ahead of a July release. This happened in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
But not in 2011.
It is now late June. WWDC has come and gone. The first preview we saw of the new version of iOS – iOS 5 – was at WWDC itself, and there has been no mention of a new iPhone in official channels anywhere. Current speculation (save for one new rumour suggesting an August release) suggests a release in September at the time when Apple usually announces the new iPod lineup, in time for the lucrative Xmas period.
The release of the Verizon (née CMDA) iPhone in February and the long-awaited white iPhone 4 in April are probably related to the next iPhone’s belated launch. Whether they are seen as excuses for Apple to push a release of an iPhone 5 back a few months with the promise of ‘new’ intermediate hardware, or are even perhaps the causes of a delay to the iPhone 5, we may never know.
Apple’s iPod cycles have been equally as predictable as the iPhone’s, and for far longer. And yet, we are already seeing deviations from the ordinary on this front.
Usually, new iPods are announced in September; the preceding three months feature Apple’s annual ‘Back to School’ promotion where any eligible educational purchaser can get a free iPod when buying a Mac. This helps clear out iPod inventory ahead of the September refresh.
This too has been thrown out of the window, it seems. This year’s Back to School promotion features not a free iPod, but a £65 voucher for the Mac App Store. There are only a few reasons why Apple are doing this; either it was going to cost them too much with possible reduced margins on Macs to include an iPod with every purchase, perhaps they have been far more prudent than in recent years with regards to reserve inventory, or they need to maintain supplies of iPods a little longer in order to refresh the lineup a little later than usual (a fourth option is of course that someone at Apple genuinely believes that students would rather have £65 to spend on apps than a free iPod). This would allow the next iPhone’s rumoured September release to have the stage all to itself.
The iPad, being a relative newcomer to Apple’s product lineup, doesn’t have the long history of release schedules as its siblings. In fact, two releases is by no means enough to establish a reliable pattern. However, both of these releases have taken place not long before Easter so it is not presumptuous to assume that the next iPad should be here in March or April 2012.
However, with the evidence that Apple is already playing about with its expected release schedule, combined with a new rumour suggesting a September release and increased competition from other tablet makers, it is no longer far fetched to say that we could see the iPad 3 before the end of 2011. Releasing the iPad 3 as much as six months ahead of its expected release date, as the rest of the tablet market (such that it is) scrambles to catch up with the iPad 2, will cement its place as the only tablet worth buying for years to come.
It is possible that Apple are looking to align all of their consumer products to a single release cycle in September, in time for the Xmas shopping rush where Apple usually makes the most money. By delaying the iPhone 5 by three months, and bringing the iPad 3 forward six months, Apple’s competitors will be struggling to keep tracks with what used to be a reliable schedule.
Alternatively, perhaps the days of annual, reliable update cycles from Apple are the thing of the past. Previously everyone knew when to expect the iPhone, iPod or iPad, and as such sales will decline noticeably after about nine months of a product being on sale, in anticipation of a newer, greater model just around the corner. But it isn’t just the customers who notice these release trends; Apple’s competitors do too, and seem to be beginning to rely on the annual cycle to push out newer technologies long before an iPhone update.
Regardless, for now we’ll have to wait and see what Apple has up its sleeve.