Apple announces iPhone 4S with Siri voice control system; modest iPod updates

Apple have today announced the iPhone 4S with a revolutionary new voice control system, as well as announcing launch dates for iOS 5 and iCloud, and offering incremental updates to its iPod lineup. Read my full blog post over at GrindGadget.

There was no sign of the rumoured iPhone 5.

Will Thunderbolt come to the iPhone and iPods this year?

I had a thought today that perhaps Apple will be bringing the new Thunderbolt technology to its lineup of iPhones and iPods in their next generations.

This is purely speculation on my part, but let me outline why I think this is a possibility.

Firstly, it is increasingly evident that the new iPhone will not be here until August at the earliest, probably not till September. The new iPods are also in the same sort of timeframe, as I detailed earlier this week.

By that time, the entire Mac lineup should feature Thunderbolt, as the Mac mini, MacBook Airs and Mac Pro are all expected to be updated in the next couple of months and Apple has included Thunderbolt in each new Mac iteration since first announcing it in February’s MacBook Pro refresh.

Apple is also known to be hiring people for its Thunderbolt team, and it is obvious that they see the technology as the future ahead of USB 3.0 and even their own (still unreleased and of currently unknown future) FireWire 1600 and 3200 updates.

With the entire Mac range equipped with Thunderbolt by the time of the expected announcement of the next iPhone, what better way to continue pushing the new technology than by rolling it into their consumer electronic devices? With proven data transfer speeds of 827MB a second, a cabled sync will take seconds, no matter how much data was being transferred.

There are a few problems with this theory, however. The first is that rolling out Thunderbolt could potentially undermine the new WiFi Sync feature of iOS 5 – whether Apple will see this as a problem is another matter, and the two features are likely to speak to two different types of user.

Secondly, it is not known (or at least, I don’t know, which for the purposes of this article amounts to the same thing) how backwards-compatible a Thunderbolt iPhone will be with the vast majority of Mac users who will still need to use USB to sync. But then that loops me back to that first point – WiFi Sync could actually replace USB sync on these new iPhones with Thunderbolt as a feature there for ‘power’ users.

The only other hurdle I can think of is the expense of including Thunderbolt in a consumer electronics device which Apple is continually trying to reduce the cost of building, especially with constant rumours of a cheaper, smaller ‘iPhone Nano’ (which, it has been speculated, could possibly replace the iPod touch if it got cheap enough).

There have been currently no rumours on this front, which is why this post is entirely speculation. But Apple have a long history of dropping technology for the next best thing when it suits them, so maybe, just maybe, this will become a reality sooner than we think.

Note: whilst writing this post, AppleInsider published a story stating that the component cost of adding Thunderbolt to consumer devices was stunting adoption of the new technology. Whilst this may be true, Apple themselves are more familiar with Thunderbolt than most manufacturers as they were involved in its development and may be able to achieve compatibility for cheaper. Or, this may be part of what Apple was talking about when they speak of reduced margins at their earnings calls.

Apple continues to mess with release schedule to keep competitors, customers guessing

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.

The iPhone

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.

The iPods

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

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.

Right?

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.