Calling Apple's media event on Tuesday one of the most anticipated technology moments of 2014 seems like an understatement. The event has been mainstream news for some time now and last week's New York Times coverage of the expected announcements, which includes quite a lot of detail from Apple employees and partners, made that fact more than clear. Expected are a pair of new iPhones with larger screens, a new payments system, and a long-rumored watch-like wearable with fitness-tracking capabilities.
While the products are not predictable, the predictable timing of this event -- almost exactly a year after the last iPhone announcement on Sept 10, 2013 -- suggests a problem.
Apple's year has become extremely top heavy, with every major product, OS, and major apps released in the fall, usually between September and November. Some Mac models receive minor updates throughout the year, but in general if you're looking to see what Apple does next and are considering buying or upgrading an Apple device, you wait until September so that you know you'll get the latest and greatest. That's in stark contrast to most of Apple competitors, in particular Samsung, which schedules events and launches new products or variations of recent ones all throughout the year.
Apple's year hasn't always been like this. For years, iPhones launched in the summer; until two years ago, iPads came out in the spring. When iPods were Apple's biggest sellers, they and iTunes usually got announced in the fall. Mac and OS X releases used to be somewhat sporadic, usually announced when a new OS version was fully baked, and were only standardized around a fall release schedule as Apple moved to yearly updates with the release of Lion in 2011.
Even those schedules were never fully etched in stone. When Apple had something to say -- to preview a new OS, tease a forthcoming product upgrade, or launch something completely new -- it would simply schedule an event whenever it wanted to.
Six years ago, Apple's decision to pull out of the annual MacWorld Expo in January resulted in concern and confusion among its customers and fans, but one of the advantages was that Apple could unlink its major news and launches from the show's annual schedule and build its year around its own media events, which let it engender a greater sense of surprise.
One benefit of that approach is that although there might be word that Apple would be launching a new product or upgrading an existing one, no one was ever sure exactly when, and sometimes the cryptic event invitations sent to members of the press would be a complete surprise. The result was that many Apple buyers wouldn't know when a new product was coming and would buy when they needed, wanted, or could afford to, rather than holding off for months as is often the case today. Apple earnings calls in those days never had people holding off buying a device until a later quarter as an explanation of slower sales, which is now becoming a common mantra.
There are some good reasons that Apple has likely fallen into its current annual rut.
- Launching iOS and OS X updates in the fall tracks well with Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in early June and gives developers lead time to prepare for a fall launch.
- It creates a nice iOS upgrade package -- new iOS version, new iPhone, new iPad all launching alongside one another.
- It encourages upgrades and new devices as gift items for the holiday shopping quarter, typically Apple's biggest of the year.
There are downsides as well, however.
- Major purchases or upgrades are postponed throughout most of Apple's fiscal year.
- Some purchases may be actively put off for a year if a customer can afford only one (or a small number) of Apple's premium-priced devices at a time, even if that person might otherwise purchase two or more devices throughout a single year.
- Accurate or not, it makes the company seem unfocused and listless the rest of the year, something that isn't good for its reputation on Wall Street or in customer mind share.
- It also makes the company seem very static and dogmatic and less innovative by extension, particularly as its competitors launch products more frequently. This impression in the public mindset can occur regardless of the quality, price points, or actual innovation of some of those competing products.
- As more and more companies, including Microsoft, shift to fast-paced iterations of software and services, becoming more "Google-like" for want of a better term, this annual cycle can make Apple seem staid and out of touch.
All of these things togethe have fueled the impression that Apple lost its way after Jobs died and is surviving only by iterating on a set schedule and a set of products left behind by the former CEO left behind. In doing so it has handed Apple's critics and its competitors with serious ammunition.
While I disagree with that assessment, I think it has taken Apple sometime to get its bearings under Cook and to plot its course for the future. As I said back in June, this year's WWDC keynote was probably the first time we've truly seen what Apple has become under Cook and I don't think anyone can look at iOS 8 (or any of the anticipated announcements for tomorrow's event) and say Apple has lost the ability to innovate or the potential to disrupt more industries.
For many others, however, these items serve as proof that Apple is on a slow downward slope from which it won't recover. We've seen that affect both its stock price as well as media and public mind share about the company as have each of the negative impressions that come from such a lop-sided release cycle.
Should Apple return to the days of random, short notice, and secretive announcements?
Perhaps not. After all, there have been many customers that got irked when out of the blue an Apple product that they'd just bought was replaced by a newer, faster, better model a couple of weeks after they bought it (and I've occasionally been one of them). Some predictability can be a good thing.
I do think that Apple does need to spread out its launches and upgrades throughout the year, however. I also think that it might be a good idea as the iPhone and iPad lines have fleshed out to even follow a bit of Samsung's lead and split out the various models throughout the year -- launch the full size iPad in the fall, the iPad mini in the spring, and the rumored larger iPad in the summer, for example.
This has significant potential to make Apple seem more dynamic; keep the media, its fans, and its customers engaged with the company throughout the year; encourage a more regular and consistent revenue stream; and offer the company a number of additional opportunities to highlight each of its product lines and platforms - something that doesn't happen on a consistent basis through large parts of the year at this point.
All of these things are good for Apple, its investors, its customers, and its public image. Apple remains a great company and a powerful force in the technology world. It should celebrate that every chance that it gets, not just for a few months at the end of each year.