Can Apple Get Away with Fewer Upgrades?

June 9th, 2016

There seems to be a meme playing out in the media in recent weeks that Apple updates gear and operating systems too often. This feeling is supported by the fact that many product refreshes, particularly Macs, are quite minor and barely discernible. The last iOS and OS X (or whatever it’ll be called next week) shipped with loads of lingering bugs. By the time they are resolved, it’s time to start all over again with a new release.

A blatant example was OS X Yosemite. It shipped with irritating Wi-Fi glitches involving connectivity and other ills. Well, not for me, but my iMac is hooked up to a wired Ethernet network. My notebook, a 2010 17-inch MacBook Pro, seemed to run all right. But the Wi-Fi hardware since then changed considerably. Unfortunately, Apple went through several maintenance updates to set things right, which was finally done by reverting a system file to a previous version. What Apple tried to do technically didn’t survive real-world experience.

iOS updates have traditionally arrived each year with a new iPhone, and I’ll get to the latter shortly.  Apple has opted to make OS X updates annual too, and they are delivered free of charge. That, plus watchOS and tvOS, represent the core of what’s expected from next week’s WWDC keynote.

Free operating system upgrades are just terrific. Having new features to enhance your experience is also great. But when things just don’t work as advertised — and you have to wait long months for a fix — that’s not so great. It appears to indicate that Apple is pushing too many OS upgrades too quickly, and something has to give.

S0me tech pundits are suggesting Apple doesn’t have to issue a new OS to coincide with new equipment. While those upgrades might contain some new stuff, changing the schedule to every two years shouldn’t hurt sales of new gear. I just wonder, if you polled Apple customers, they’d tell you that they bought their new iPhones or Macs because the OS did something brand spanking new. Besides, ongoing feature additions over the year, perhaps with a press release, will continue to drive attention to the OS without having to push a major upgrade.

Sure, there can always be a minor update with a new feature or two to match a product upgrade, but the rest of the OS doesn’t have to change.

Google holds an I/O conference every year to launch a new version of Android and I can see the pressure on Apple to be competitive. But the new features in an Android upgrade aren’t always so significant and, besides, it may take a year or two for a decent number of end users to actually get that update. And most won’t, so it really doesn’t matter. Even a new handset or tablet may come with an older OS version. At least with Apple gadgets, if the new hardware has the previous OS — never older — upgrading is not difficult.

That takes us to the hardware. Macs used to get annual updates, but some slide for two or three years. The last Mac mini arrived in 2014. The last Mac Pro arrived in 2013. So far in 2016, only one Mac, the MacBook, received a refresh with newer parts. Most Mac upgrades — except for the Mac Pro — have also been minor, with the newest Intel hardware. Things have slowed down since Intel’s new chips are coming later and later, but, yes, I’ve seen the speculation that a new version of the MacBook Pro is expected next week.

So far as the iPhone concerned, it’s pretty much in Apple’s hands since they develop the processor. The iPhone has been updated on a tick-tock schedule. One year the case is redesigned to some degree (the last time this happened, larger displays were added), and the following year there is a standard hardware refresh and a few additional features. Siri debuted this way with the iPhone 4s in 2011. Otherwise, it looked almost the same as the iPhone 4, but the antenna system was improved, so it would be less vulnerable to signal loss if you held it the wrong way.

Unlike new Macs, an iPhone release is a special event. It always merits a media launch, and customers routinely wait outside Apple Stores for hours — or days — to buy one. Well, not the iPhone SE, which was essentially an upgrade of the iPhone 5s with new parts.

Now some suggest the next release will still be an iPhone 7. But the case will be almost the same as the iPhone 6 series. There will be faster hardware and some other minor enhancements, more in line with a “tock” release. But if it was presented as an iPhone 6x, some customers would no doubt balk. Well, maybe not, because most of them will be using handsets they have had for two years or more, so they may be ready to buy new gear.

The regular group of Apple critics will complain, because they don’t live in the real world, or understand the needs of individual customers and why they buy or don’t buy. Unless you abuse your iPhone, it should last more than two years. My wife’s iPhone 5c was released in 2013. It is in perfect condition, hasn’t had heavy use, and I expect she’ll keep it a year or two longer before asking for something new.

What this means is that customers aren’t as apt to upgrade as often as before. This is certainly true with the iPad, where some are using gear that’s three or four years old. My sister-in-law has a third-generation iPad from 2012. It seems somewhat sluggish to me, but she isn’t complaining. That’s also the dilemma Apple is facing. Customers aren’t rushing to buy the new models.

I’m not about to suggest that Apple’s product upgrade policies are wrong. Clearly customer tastes are changing, but it’s also true that a larger percentage of customers are considered potential iPhone upgraders this year than last year. That ought to indicate the iPhone 7 will be more successful, even if the critics don’t think — despite having little information to go on — that it will have enough changes.

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4 Responses to “Can Apple Get Away with Fewer Upgrades?”

  1. dfs says:

    The situation is made more complex by the ubiquity of Apple’s Public Beta program, which seems available to just about anybody who wants to join in. You may be deterred by the risks involved in running beta software (and Apple does issue a pretty stern warning). But when you consider that the actual GM release of a new OS is sort of a beta itself — Gene’s rundown of Yosemite’s wi-fi issues is a good illustration of this — the picture gets a bit blurrier. The bottom line is that literally millions of users can and do run a new OS and/or iOS months before its official release. And Apple were to stage its OS releases at wider intervals, one wonders what would happen to their timeline for public beta releases — would their time cycles be stretched too?

    • gene says:

      Apple signs up any beta tester who has a pulse.

      But the worst of it is that it doesn’t seem they are getting any solid feedback, or using that feedback, to improve the OS. I cannot believe the WI-Fi problem went undiscovered.


  2. dfs says:

    Another point is this — Apple’s current policy of annual OS upgrades is largely driven by Intel’s “tick-tock” scheduling of its new processing chips. So exactly how realistic would it be for Apple to cut itself loose from Intel’s scheduling?

    • gene says:

      The OS need only be updated for the new hardware, a simple maintenance installer. It doesn’t have to represent a major upgrade at all.


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