The Usual Nonsense About “Off-Year” iPhone Updates

August 12th, 2015

Usually the tech media has a handle on a new iPhone in the weeks before it’s released. That information is usually based on leaks from the supply chain, and when they come fast and furious, it’s possible to sort out the essence of the upgrade. But that’s just the essence.

So we knew in the spring of 2014 that Apple was working on larger displays, and the 4.7-inch iPhone 6, and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus weren’t exactly surprises. Surprising, instead, were the high sales, and Samsung’s sales growth stopped in its tracks, particularly at the high end. You see, it became clear that Samsung’s sole compelling reason for customers to buy their stuff was a larger display. After Apple answered that need, what was left? Lots of useless features that barely worked?

Now if past is prologue, the next iPhone refresh will be “minor,” leaving the external look essentially unchanged, with most of the changes within. So there will probably be support for Force Touch, if only because Apple has that feature on the Apple Watch and new MacBooks. Some rumors suggest it’ll also be a tad thicker to accommodate the extra electronics.

The rest of the expected changes appear also to be incremental, with better LTE performance, an A9 processor, 2GB of RAM, not to mention a beefier camera with 12 megapixels. In recent years, Apple has stayed with 8 megapixels, but continues to improve lenses and other elements to enhance picture taking capability. There may even be a stronger aluminum case structure to make it even more difficult for the handsets to bend under severe abuse.

But that would mean taking the “bendgate” claims seriously, even though the iPhone tests more than satisfactory in formal abuse tests.

Now if Apple actually changed the exterior look, swapping out all or most of the internal workings would amount to a major upgrade. But since the look appears to be the same, even if extra colors are added, it must otherwise be a minor refresh. The looks are everything, and it doesn’t matter what parts are being replaced.

That may not make much sense from a logical point of view, but you’ve heard this argument about iPhone upgrades every other year. The song is always the same, which is why some industry analysts are predicting lackluster sales. It’s as if people who bought last year’s iPhone are looking for reasons whether to upgrade to this year’s model, but that’s not the target audience. Yes, some of you have one of those special wireless packages that lets you upgrade every 12 months without paying a penalty, or even more frequently. But the usual upgrade cycle is every two years.

So to most of the people who might buy the next iPhone — assuming it looks the same as the current model — would find it quite different compared to what they have. They would  be upgrading from a model with a 4-inch display after all, such as the iPhone 5s.

True, Apple’s stock price has been down in the dumps since record sales and profits were reported for the June quarter. That plus conservative guidance, and reports of economic woes in China, have combined to make some financial analysts skeptical about Apple. Sure, it is quite possible the China problem might slow  sales, since that country has been a key factor in revenue growth in recent years.

That, however, would be true for any tech company who depends on China for a decent portion of sales. However, that doesn’t mean there will be no growth, and the aspirational buyers who are lapping up gear from Apple may just keep buying. The numbers for the September quarter might give a clue.

While that situation might impact future sales, it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the next iPhone refresh. That’s true even if the so-called iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are exactly as pictured on the rumor sites. It’s not as if they are making things up. The level of detail does appear to indicate actual products and not just mock-ups. It’s also true that speculation about a future iPhone refresh tends to firm in the weeks before release. So while Apple might have a few tricks up its sleeve, or hardware features that aren’t being predicted, the basics are out there already.

But this is par for the course for Apple. Hardware refreshes are rarely sufficient, though it’s hard to say that about the 2013 Mac Pro upgrade, the 12-inch MacBook, or even the iMac with 5K Retina display. Operating system upgrades are also said to be minor unless there’s a new theme, or a new system font. Deep hardware changes aren’t taken seriously.

So it’s perceived that iOS 9 and El Capitan are minor updates designed strictly to improve performance and fix bugs. But compare the changes to Windows 10 or the latest versions of Android and you’ll see that Apple is being very competitive. Consider, with Windows 10, that the most important feature is the return of a working Start menu, and the Cortana virtual assistant. The new Edge browser is fundamentally a slimmed down version of Internet Explorer built on a fork of the very same rendering engine. That, and a few window management enhancements, cover most of what would directly impact customers.

The story never changes.

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One Response to “The Usual Nonsense About “Off-Year” iPhone Updates”

  1. Peter says:

    The looks are everything, and it doesn’t matter what parts are being replaced.

    But, if it looks the same, how will people know I upgraded?

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