Once again, some people “believed” that Apple was going to release something different, didn’t, and “failed to meet their expectations. This belief was based on nothing more than guess and speculation. Again, Apple did nothing and said nothing about what was coming. What Apple did was follow their own playbook, meaning that the new iPad was going to be an upgrade on the iPad 2. The only surprise to me was that they didn’t change the name. Otherwise, there was nothing there that was unexpected.
My Own Prediction Was Close
For my part, I predicted an upgrade. I was expecting a new name, like iPad 2S, to differentiate, and I was expecting some of the low-end versions of the original iPad 2 to stick around at reduced prices. I was also anticipating a quad-core CPU, not just an upgraded GPU. I was hoping to see more on-board storage. But all of the other bits (Siri, although in reduced form, Retina display, upgraded hardware) were pretty much in line with my expectations.
Apple has followed the same basic approach for pretty much every product since the original iPhone. First, we see the New Thing, the product that isn’t in their stable currently (iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, Apple TV). A year later, we see a brand new version of that product (iPhone 3G, iPad 2, 11″/13″ MacBook Air, the smaller Apple TV). A year after that, an upgrade rather than a new design (iPhone 3GS, refreshed iPad 2, MacBook Air with Thunderbolt, 1080p Apple TV). Then, we see a redesigned device (iPhone 4, since it’s the only one old enough to have seen a “net new”) followed up an upgrade (iPhone 4S).
But Why Take That Path?
It’s simple: in part, it keeps the current accessories relevant for another year. Apple is probably more concerned with their own accessory revenue than the 3rd parties, but it helps them as well. By sticking with the same basic form-factor on the upgrade cycle, Apple keeps their current accessory ecosystem alive for another year, more-or-less. They can continue to drive profit out of their investment in the supply chain and tooling. People buying the upgraded devices can keep the accessories they have (they have the previous model) and new buyers have a wide selection of accessories for their new acquisition.
This approach also allows them to continue to drive profit out of their current tooling and supply chain for the product itself. Yes, there are some differences in the refreshed iPad 2 aluminum case, but the assembly process is largely unchanged, and there is no need for a major rework of the assembly line. Common components, like the glass face of the device and other parts, can live for another year, and since the costs associated with them have likely gone down, that just increases the per-unit margin.
So What’s Next
While Apple can, and probably will, deviate from this pattern at some point, what we can expect next would be some new-new devices this year. The next iPhone (likely called iPhone 5) will very likely be a brand-new design. Yes, it will likely have 4G support, the A5x CPU/GPU and upgraded cameras. Hopefully it will see a bump in storage. But the next iPhone will be more-or-less net-new again.
The MacBook air has had it’s initial version, a major update and a refresh. So, if the Apple playbook holds, the next MacBook Air will be significantly different. Rumours circulating indicate that a 3rd, larger screen version will be added. I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple finds a way to make it thinner, lighter and give it more storage. It may even come with a touchscreen and begin to feel more and more like an iPad with a keyboard. The same is likely for the MacBook Pro, although what we could see is the beginning of the convergence of the Air and Pro lines into a single line of laptops.
Apple Is Falling Into Patterns
For the past few years, Apple has fallen into a somewhat-predictable pattern. We know that we only get completely new device in back-to-back years when Apple releases a completely new device (like the original iPhone, MacBook Air and iPad). After that it seems to follow the “upgrade-new-upgrade-new” until the device is phased out. Expect to see that with the end of the iPod Classic this fall.
Apple has also developed a pattern when it comes to the announcement schedule, although they have deviated once in a while. iMacs are usually near the start of the year. We get new iPads in late winter/early spring. We see new iPhones at WWDC in June (usually). MacBook Air’s are early summer, and MacBook Pro’s are late summer in time for back to school. iTunes and iPod are September. This isn’t hard-and-fast, but Apple tends to follow this schedule pretty often.
At some point, Apple may try to mix things up. But there is also value and comfort in familiarity, so the incentive to change can be minimal. So, until Apple demonstrates otherwise, we can continue to expect the same basic schedule and same progression for devices for a little while yet.