Ever since the original iPhone came out in 2007, Apple has had a predictable upgrade process. Every year in early autumn, Apple would announce a new phone and a few weeks later would make it available—in plenty of time for holiday shopping. Then the company would announce and release a new iPad. In the late spring each year, Apple would announce its major upgrades to its operating systems.
Every other year—at least lately—Apple would have an interim upgrade. This year it was the iPhone 6s and the 6s Plus. Before that it was the 5 and the 5s. iPads were only announced once per year, and this time it was the iPad Pro. Before that it was a series of iPads, culminating in 2014 with the iPad Air 2.
Now it seems that things are changing. This spring, perhaps in March, we’ll see the new 4-inch iPhone, which might be the iPhone 6se or maybe the 5se. There will be a new iPad around the same time—in this case, the iPad Air 3. There may also be a new Apple Watch.
At this point we don’t know whether Apple will make a big software announcement at this year’s World Wide Developers Conference. Considering that iOS upgrades have been coming along every month or so, such an announcement may not be necessary.
So what’s going on here? It’s hard to know for sure, since Apple hasn’t divulged its deepest corporate secrets to me, despite my continued efforts. But what seems to be happening is that Apple CEO Tim Cook is trying to change the company’s ebb and flow of results over the course of a year.
This will, of course, drive the financial analysts on Wall Street nuts—not only because they didn’t predict that this would happen but also because they won’t be able to point to a single quarter of sales data as evidence that the iPhone is tanking. Instead, Apple will see steadier sales over the course of the year, as new features will emerge seamlessly, with each building on the release that came out a few months before.
Wow. Talk about radical ideas. Does this mean that Apple is starting to act more like IBM or HP? Perhaps it does.
You’ll notice that the computer makers with long histories of serving the business world don’t act like consumer products companies. While they may still have hype-filled meetings to announce new ideas, they don’t rigidly schedule their announcements to an artificial date on the calendar. They announce and ship their major products when they’re ready, and when their customers need them.
Why Apple’s Upgrade Cycle Change Should Benefit Customers, Sellers
In the days when I was buying equipment for a large organization based in Washington, D.C., big companies didn’t waste our time with silly announcement games. Instead, if they knew that I was writing specifications for a computer or related items, it was common for these companies to brief me on what specifically they had coming out. They did this in part so that I could make sure the specs included them, of course, but they also wanted me to know what to expect a few months down the road.
While purchasing regulations are in a state of constant change, the reality is that I needed enough lead time to know what would be possible to buy when the RFP hit the street. This means that in the days of 16-bit processors, there wasn’t any point in my requesting a 64-bit processor because they wouldn’t be available commercially.
But this all meant that products had to be available (or at least information about them available) in time for me to think about buying them. This also meant that the product upgrade cycle had to be something besides just once per year.
Whether or not Apple is changing its cycle to accommodate my former employer is unknown. But by evening out the variations in sales cycles, the company is certainly making things easier for corporate buyers. It also seems certain that it’s making things easier on Apple and its suppliers as well. If everything along a supply chain flows smoothly without huge variations, the manufacturer saves money, and the feast or famine feeling recedes to a feeling in which everyone can count on what’s happening any given day.
Apple’s supply chain has obviously been built to spend months getting ready for the first day of sales, but that’s hardly the most efficient way to run a manufacturing operation. When you (or your suppliers) have to build large inventories of components or finished products far in advance, it costs money at every stage of the process.
At each step along the way there are charges for everything from warehousing to interest, with no immediate revenue to offset those charges. Those extra costs have to be covered somewhere, and that somewhere usually means stockholders and customers.
If Apple is indeed working to smooth out its product cycle, and that’s what it looks like, then it’s a good move for everyone concerned.