Not so many years ago, there was good reason to upgrade your tech gear fairly often. Each year brought major performance and feature improvements. If you had the cash, you could revel in the glory of all those enhancements. If you hung onto a device for even a few years, you may have felt you had an obsolete product.
This was especially true in the early years of a product’s lifecycle. So you could depend on every iPhone being substantially better than its predecessor. The traditional two-year upgrade cycle was based on the standard cellular contract, where you’d pay a small amount of money — or no money — and take your device home. The phone was usually locked, so you couldn’t just switch to another carrier until the agreement was complete. If you broke it before then, you’d pay a hefty early termination fee that was usually on a sliding scale.
So this encouraged you to seek something new after the contract was up, especially since the monthly price seldom changed after the initial down payment. Of course, you could buy the handset outright and be free of such restrictions.
More recently, carriers in the U.S. require that you buy the smartphone up front, or agree to some sort of time payment plan where you essentially lease the device for a given period. Again it’s usually two years, and many plans let you upgrade free every 12, 18 or 24 months. Of course, if you upgrade before the unit is paid for, you have to return it, usually within a short period of time after its replacement arrives. Otherwise, you’ll be billed for the balance due.
Even though smartphone sales have cooled, that’s more a function of a saturated market in most developed countries. But it’s also true that up-to-date hardware, unless it’s strictly low-end, is good enough for most people. True, there are plenty of differences between the 2014 iPhone 6 and the 2016 iPhone 7, but both perform well enough with iOS 10, and the new features are not really essential for many people.
That doesn’t mean that the iPhone 7 isn’t selling so well. Indeed, demand appears to be high, and the “Plus” version was back ordered until recently. A published report indicates that Apple saw twice as many activations of iPhones and iPads as Samsung, its nearest competitor, during the holiday sales period.
But when it comes to the iPad, upgrade fever cooled long ago, as people decided that the device they had was good enough and there was (with few exceptions) no cellular contract or upgrade program to entice them to order something new. In the September quarter, the sales drop was in the single digits, better than it has been in recent quarters, which may indicate sales are starting to flatten. Perhaps as more people decide to upgrade, sales will increase again. Or maybe many iPad users aren’t quite as convinced of the benefits of the tablet form factor.
So is there anything that Apple can do to make you want to replace your iPad, assuming it still works well enough for your needs? Other than the usual speed bumps, they haven’t changed all that much. The exception is the “Pro” lineup, which has a Smart Connector for a compatible keyboard. The 9.7-inch version also includes the wider color gamut that Apple added to the iPhone 7 and to last year’s iMac.
Indeed, that the average sale price of iPads has increased may indicate that the Pro models are taking an increasing share of sales. We might know a lot more when the December quarter financials are released in late January 2017.
As to Macs, upgrade fever cooled long ago. It appears that more and more people are hanging onto their Macs for longer periods. The fact that annual refreshes are generally very modest also fuels contentment with the one you already have. Why spend a bundle of money on a new computer when it hasn’t changed all that much?
As I wrote yesterday, the Late 2016 MacBook Pro — absent the Touch Bar and the battery life controversy — is only slightly faster in many respects than its predecessor. Graphics are a sweet spot, and the SSD is a lot faster too. But unless you’re concerned about decent gaming, and having every drive-based function sped up as much as possible, perhaps it won’t matter. Indeed, even if Apple, as predicted, refreshes the iMac in 2017, it probably won’t be sufficient to tempt many owners of the 2014 and 2015 models. The same may be true for the Mac mini.
A key exception is apt to be the Mac Pro, if it ever earns another upgrade. After more than three years, it’s clear that Intel’s Xeon processor and graphics hardware from AMD and NVIDIA run noticeably faster and would thus yield the sort of improvement professional users expect from a high-end workstation. Apple will no doubt add support for USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, which will also speed up peripherals that support the new technologies. That is, if a new Mac Pro ever comes.
Overall, however, selling upgrades to existing customers has become more of a hard sell. The lack of significant improvements year-to-year, and the usually superb reliability of Apple’s gadgets, means that customers are apt to keep what they have for longer periods.
Unless there is some spectacular development that advances there state of the art in such products in a way that makes the new hardware must-haves, this is the new normal.
It doesn’t help that the ragged nature of the world economy has made it more difficult for people to invest in upgrades for their tech gear before its time.
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