Though it’s still not clear whether Apple delayed the iPhone 4S’s launch to October because of engineering delays or for strategic marketing reasons, the company’s decision has had some major consequences. As it turned out, Apple didn’t just alter the normal timing of iPhone releases: it also ended a well-established timeframe of announcements that generated a steady flow of excitement throughout each year, with separate iPad, Mac, iPhone, and iPod events each generating news and interest. This change obviously hasn’t brought the world to an end, but it has disrupted a calendar that worked quite well for consumers, journalists, developers, and Apple itself.
Prior to the release of the iPhone, Apple had three major scheduled events per year: Macworld Expo in January, WWDC in June/July, and its annual iPod event in September. Rarely did it deviate from this schedule, and even after the iPhone was first revealed in January 2007, the rest of that year played out similar to those past, with the iPhone hitting stores in late June.
In 2008, Apple added a new event to the schedule that remained in place for three straight years—a springtime iOS roadmap event—even as it moved away from exhibiting at Macworld Expo. This iOS event was smaller in scale thanks to its Apple Town Hall venue, but generated disproportionate publicity and interest because it outlined the course of iOS for the year. Following the roadmap event, June’s WWDC would bring a release date for the OS, plus a soon-ish launch date for the iPhone model that was announced at the event, followed by an iPod-focused event in the fall. This was the way of things in 2009 and 2010, as well, even though 2010 saw yet another event added to the calendar—a yearly iPad announcement, which came to take the place of Macworld Expo as a pre-WWDC keynote event. Smaller Mac and iPod announcements alternated between dedicated events and press releases, filling in gaps between the major events. Consequently, Apple buzz was at an all-time high.
The entire schedule was thrown off in 2011. Apple staged the iPad event later in the year than in 2010, setting the stage for what have become March-timeframe iPad announcements and releases. The iOS roadmap event was scrapped altogether, and was instead integrated into WWDC, which came and went with nary a mention of a new iPhone. Then, in October—later than usual for the fall iPod event—Apple belatedly announced a new iPhone and the release date for the latest version of iOS, while the iPod lineup was left largely untouched. In the absence of tangible Apple news, rumors so dominated publications that even mainstream newspapers were chasing stories of teardrop-shaped iPhones and Apple television sets. Most of 2011 was spent waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Apart from March’s Retina iPad event and June’s MacBook Pro announcement at WWDC, this “dead air” news cycle continued through 2012. iTunes and partnership-related announcements that would once have merited footnotes at iPod events are being booked in New York City and all but forgotten soon thereafter. And publications are for the first time in years oddly bereft of major Apple news—unless you consider the upcoming release of Mountain Lion for Macs to be “major.” It’s noteworthy that Apple made no major announcements between the iPhone 4S’s announcement last October and the iPad event in March, or between the iPad event and WWDC in June. The company now appears to be planning a similar dead period between WWDC and whenever it decides to host what could end up being a combo iPhone/iPod/iPad mini event, unless it splits that news into two or three smaller events.
In any case, a long time is passing now between major announcements, and the fewer events are getting overloaded with new hardware, accessories, apps, and OS debuts. So why has Apple—the most effective organization in the world at manipulating press coverage—decided to leave such gaping holes in its information timeline? The company’s stock and sales are doing spectacularly well, but it’s beginning to lose its dominance of the news cycle. Why?
It’s possible that the long wait between a summertime iPhone introduction and the holiday shopping season left too big of a window in which competitors could launch new products and steal sales—see the Motorola Droid as an example. But if Apple was going to shift the iPhone’s introductions to fall, why not switch things up and fill the summertime gap with new iPods? It’s not as if there are a lot of competitors releasing new products in the media player space, and there’s still plenty of interest in consuming music and videos on devices other than iPhones, particularly for younger and older users. Apple has owned the portable media player market, but it’s just allowing it to stagnate.
There have been other consequences, as well. Placing the iPhone/iOS launch later in the year has given developers less time to get new accessories and apps into stores before the critically important holiday shopping season arrives. Compressing multiple announcements into a single day—as happened at WWDC this year without an iOS roadmap event, and may happen again at this year’s fall event—has been overwhelming both journalists and consumers with information, lessening the impact of any announcements being made. What user could possibly keep track of all the different products launched or updated during this year’s WWDC keynote? Who would have the disposable income ready to purchase a new iPad mini and iPhone at once, should they be announced together?
Our belief is that Apple’s current announcement schedule is becoming problematic for nearly everyone, including Apple. Reporters are faced with crushingly busy event days and seriously slow periods in between, developers of both accessories and apps are left with shorter launch windows for getting optimized products into stores, Apple loses the publicity value of separate announcements, and, most importantly, consumers are flooded with information on only a few occasions all year, making it extremely easy for important info to slip through the cracks.
We obviously don’t know Apple’s plans—it’s possible that this rearrangement may have taken place because the iPod family will cease to exist, or because the company plans to use one of its now slow periods to host TV-related events in the near future—but we’re pretty sure we’re not the only ones who miss the year-long steady stream of announcements, introductions, and information that used to be fun for everyone except Apple’s competitors. If it hasn’t already happened internally at Apple, it’s time to think up and execute on a new schedule that makes as much sense as the old one did, because everyone will be a lot better off if there’s at least a little predictable excitement to look forward to.