So as the year ended, and Apple's stock price staged a sudden spurt after falling for many weeks, I had to wonder how the media would address Apple's prospects for 2013. Looking at the roadblocks, some suggest that Apple will continue to sacrifice profit margins to get more new products out, and not allow prices to get too high.
Then again, the decision to sell the iPad mini for $329 wasn't regarded as an effort to price the tablet in a way consistent with the actual costs of manufacture. You'd think that, if Apple really wanted to sacrifice margins, they might have brought it down to $299 or even $249, the better to match competing models from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Google. But that didn't prevent demand from exceeding supply.
In any case, an article posted on New Year's Day claimed Apple is moving to six-month upgrade cycles for key products, particularly the iPhone. If that were the case, the presumed iPhone 6 or iPhone 5S will arrive in March, which would seem rather early in the scheme of things. Apple usually makes those releases coincide with a new version of the iOS, and expecting iOS 7 to also arrive in March would be a big stretch. Maybe the summer, but with demand for the existing model still sky-high, the question is why rush?
The perception about faster upgrades is being highly influenced by the unexpected upgrade to the iPad in October, a mere seven months after the previous version was launched. Assuming a seven month upgrade cycle, that would put the next model in the crosshairs by April. That timeframe is not inconsistent with previous iPad introductions, but it puts the fourth generation model outside of a supposed "normal" release cycle.
Only there isn't a normal release cycle at Apple. Sure, sometimes there will be upgrades once a year, or maybe a little bit longer. As I mentioned in a previous column, some Macs have received two refreshes in a single year, so don't assume facts without evidence.
At the same time, it's not out of line to make predictions, and I will make a few that appear to be locks, as much as you can assume anything about Apple.
With the iPad, the logical change for a fifth generation model would be a slimmer, lighter form factor, closer in look to the iPad mini. Kissing cousins as it were. In turn, the iPad mini would be set to get a Retina display upgrade. Both could happen by spring, assuming the production issues are ironed out, and the new models can be produced affordably. I suppose Apple has an incentive to move quickly, since competition in the tablet space is fierce, and staying ahead on an annual basis may become increasingly difficult.
When it comes to the next iPhone, again I would expect iOS 7 to arrive at the same time, and that would take it until summer at the earliest.
There are published reports that Apple is even now testing OS 10.9, which may indicate that, yes, there will be an annual upgrade cycle for a while. I wouldn't be surprised to see system-wide support for Siri and a Maps API for developers. Having Jonathan Ive, of minimalist intentions, in charge of Human Interface means that the look and feel of OS X may become more consistent, with fewer skeuomorphic excesses to irritate Mac users. At the same time, there would have to be 100 to 200 new features to justify the upgrade, though some of what Apple considers "new" are mostly minor enhancements to boost the numbers.
But now that OS X is a mere $19.99 for the upgrade, I wonder if Apple will just go all the way and make the download free. This will speed up the upgrade cycle even further, and, of course, give Microsoft conniptions.
When it comes to new Macs, it's not a stretch to expect Apple to install the forthcoming Haswell chips on forthcoming refreshes. The chips are expected by spring. They will be more power efficient and, according to published reports, provide substantially better integrated graphics. This may reduce Apple's need to depend on discrete graphics for most Macs, except for the expensive configurations and, of course, the Mac Pro.
Speaking of the Mac Pro, there is little to speculate about except the form factor and final specs for the 2013 model. Tim Cook has confirmed there would be "something really great," which may indicate a major revision to the bloated minitower. That means it'll probably be sleeker, slimmer, lighter, yet still contain pretty much the same expansion options as the current model. It will also establish a platform that Apple could continue with regular component upgrades for several years. Regardless of how it shapes out, I would be very surprised not to see a built-in optical drive. The professional market that requires a Mac workstation wouldn't settle for anything less.
And, yes, it may even be built in the USA, although it's possible the Mac mini will get there first.
I also expect a major upgrade to the Apple TV, Apple's ongoing hobby, but whether that will be it, or whether there will be a smart TV in 2013, is anyone's guess. I'm still skeptical, but if Apple believes they can make a real difference, they will act. But that assumes that most of those differences can't just be addressed with a new set top box.
On the software side: Beyond OS 10.9, I would expect an iWork upgrade. The last full version arrived in 2009. It's about time, and maybe Apple will work harder to add features to match or beat those in Microsoft Office in a friendlier environment. On the pro side of the ledger, Apple will continue to spruce up Final Cut Pro X and address the ongoing concerns of video editors. There will also be a major upgrade to the Logic Studio audio production suite at a surprisingly affordable price.
To me, these predictions are just very obvious, but I may go out on the limb real soon now.
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