We had been expecting two separate iPhone launch events in 2020 - the iPhone 9 in spring and the iPhone 12 in September - but it now looks like we might not get any at all.

The iPhone 9 launch press event has almost certainly been cancelled due to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak (although the device may still be released in a quieter way, as was the iPad Pro 2020 and the new MacBook Air). And now Nikkei Asian Review, citing anonymous sources "familiar with the matter", says Apple is currently holding internal discussions about whether or not it should postpone the iPhone 12 launch, the biggest event of its year, by a matter of months.

There are two reasons for this possible delay. The first is practicality: Apple's production schedule for the iPhone 12 has been suffering since the early days of the outbreak, since so much of the company's production takes place in Asia; later, when COVID spread to Europe and the US, it forced Apple employees to work from home and in at least one case close down an office for deep cleaning.

The second is the understandable sense that people who have just come through a major global health crisis may be both less financially capable of splashing out on a new flagship smartphone and less interested in doing so even if they could.

"Apple is concerned that the current situation would significantly lower consumer appetite to upgrade their phones," said Nikkei's source, "which could lead to a tame reception of the first 5G iPhone."

The end of that quote gives a hint of a further aspect of this debate. The past few iPhones have been relatively quiet launches by Apple's standards: the iPhone X in 2017 was a cool new design, but the iPhone XS and iPhone 11 Pro in 2018 and 2019 respectively could fairly be called minor iterations on that product. The iPhone 12 in 2020 was supposed to be a blockbuster, and its inclusion of 5G was a big part of that.

Apple, as is often the case, has come late to the 5G party, and the Android manufacturers have been offering this feature for a good while. That's not necessarily a problem, because Apple's favoured strategy is to arrive late and do the thing better than anyone else, but for that to work, as Nikkei's source put it, "they need the first 5G iPhone to be a hit."

Sources say that Apple hasn't decided yet whether the iPhone 12 should be delayed, or if so, for how long. But the company intends to make a decision in May "at the latest", when the long-term effects of COVID-19 should be clearer. A delay until 2021 is currently viewed as a worst-case scenario, but it is possible.

At the height of its powers Apple was immensely dependent on the iPhone, and when iPhone shipments finally peaked and started to fall there were pretty of doomsayers who believed that this alone heralded the end of the company's period of dominance. In fact Apple has spent the succeeding years carving out a successful new model that focuses on selling software services to the large install base of iPhone owners - Apple TV+, Apple News+, Apple Arcade, as well as the usual barrage of profitable apps - and no longer depends on pure iPhone sales quite as much as it did.

Make no mistake, however: going an entire calendar year without an iPhone launch would be huge.

The main image on this article is a concept illustration created by Svetapple.