About the Fear Mongering Over the Next iPhone

August 10th, 2016

Imagine for the moment that you are involved in marketing mobile gear for one of Apple’s competitors. Sales may be decent enough, but the smartphone space is saturated, and profits just aren’t very high. Since it’s pretty well known that a new iPhone will arrive in September, it’s pretty clear that sales for competing products may stall as customers wait to see what’s coming from Apple.

So maybe the marketing person decides to feed some stories to media contacts, mostly suggesting that the so-called iPhone 7 won’t be much of an upgrade, hardly worth the bother. So maybe those alleged leaked photos are cited as evidence that it really will look about the same as the iPhone 6s, and perhaps there will be some minor component upgrades, and thus it should be passed by.

Of course, Apple’s competitors would be delighted if the next iPhone tanked. Along with rumors that the “real” refresh will occur for the 10th anniversary model, in 2017, maybe they have a point after all. Wouldn’t Apple want to make a huge deal of that anniversary?

Well, I suppose, if Apple were heavily invested in product anniversaries, which they are, of course, not. At the same time, Tim Cook and crew clearly understand that the pressure is extremely high. The iPhone 6s has been a subpar performer, at least by Apple standards of experiencing growth every single year.

Of course, Apple isn’t the only mobile handset maker to hit sales headwinds. Samsung’s flagship Galaxy smartphones are examples where sales have hit a wall from time to time. But few tech pundits seem to make so big a deal of that. It’s normal for sales to rise and fall over a product’s lifetime, but if overall trends are mostly favorable, it’s not a sign of serious trouble.

Apple, however, has always been expected to achieve a higher standard. Any time sales flatten or fall, it’s the sign of a fatal disease. Consider the Mac, where sales have been falling for a while. It doesn’t signify the end of the Mac, since PC sales overall have been dropping too. But Apple has been ahead of the curve for so long that any change has to be a huge deal.

There have been commentaries wondering whether Apple is even interested in the Mac after all, since only one model has been upgraded so far this year. It doesn’t matter that year-to-year changes in Intel processors have been relatively minor in the scheme of things. Indeed, it appears that the high-end Xeon processors used in the Mac Pro haven’t improved all that much over the past three years. But if people are holding off their Mac purchases because of constant publicity that new models are in the wings, that would hurt total sales. That assumes that large numbers of Mac users are so tied in to the day-to-day Apple scuttlebutt that it even makes a difference, and I suspect it doesn’t.

People who need a new Mac may just visit the nearest Apple Store or go online to check prices and features. The number of people who prefer to wait for the next model may only amount to a few percent of the user base, so perhaps Apple isn’t overly concerned. In large part, those postponed sales would be recovered when new models appear. It’s not as if many Mac users would jump to Windows because new Macs are a few months late.

Besides, whatever new Macs are going to arrive will probably be announced in the next two months, to ensure maximum holiday sales. So get over it.

Now when it comes to the iPhone, most of the potential buyers haven’t upgraded in two or three years. Not everyone is a power user with the financial resources to afford annual upgrades, even if they are less expensive as the result of all those carrier lease/purchase schemes. So anything Apple releases is going to be a huge upgrade even if the changes are regarded as relatively minor by the critics.

In saying that, just prejudging Apple’s plans, without some confirmation from the mother ship, is downright foolish. Even if the form factor is very similar to the current model, there could be loads of new or enhanced features to consider. Would it really matter if the case is a tad thinner or thicker, or the edges are curved rather than chamfered? How much of that really matters anyway? Well, I suppose the shape might impact how comfortable it feels, or how easy it is to keep it in your hand without the risk that it’ll slip and fall.

Since it’s just weeks from the final announcement, I’ll keep my predictions at the minimum. A faster processor is a given. Enhancements to sensors and the camera are also certain. Perhaps there will be ways to exploit the improvements in iOS 10, or to access features we really don’t know much about. Whatever the final package turns out to be, Apple will make a huge deal about how much has changed, and how it all stacks up against the competition.

The biggest problem, facing all smartphone makers, is that the technology is pretty good. It has essentially reached the same point as the PC, where most annual upgrades are destined to be minor in the scheme of things until the next technological revolution arrives. But that’s hardly Apple’s fault.

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