Apple, iPhone 7, and the 3-year upgrade cycle

Last week, Apple debuted the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which hold powerful new guts in external hardware that looks markedly similar to the past two years’ releases, the iPhone 6/6 Plus and their respective S revisions. This was largely seen as a disappointment by the tech media, albeit one that had been expected for a while thanks to the usual plethora of supply chain leaks. More importantly, I think that the general public is likely to see things much the same way, embracing the narrative that Apple is out of revolutionary ideas in the post-Jobs era.

There is an element of truth to this narrative, but I think there’s more to it than that. Some point to the iPhone 5 as being the last time that Apple truly innovated in their mobile hardware designs, but it’s easy to forget that the iPhone 5 (and the 5S after it) was a relatively fragile piece of technology, with a soft, easily scratched aluminum shell and an anodization process that made those scratches stand out unless you opted for the silver model and its bare aluminum shell.

Sacrifices always have to be made in order to design a product that will be mass-produced, and that mass production itself introduces plenty of additional problem vectors. (For the record, I think that the Jet Black version of the iPhone 7/7 Plus is going to have similar superficial durability problems, but Apple is hedging against complaints with a warning). Some of what is perceived as a lack of innovation comes from the reality of sustainable, durable design. Just ask Samsung about the Note 7 and its exploding battery debacle.

I currently have an iPhone 6 Plus in my pocket, and while there are a few hairline scratches on the glass (most of which require bright light and a specific angle to see), the aluminum shell is nearly blemish-free, despite the fact that I sometimes drop my phone and refuse to put it in a case. The 6S and 6S Plus apparently have even stronger aluminum wrapping around the back, and I have no doubt that the 7 series phones will continue to use it, which, when coupled with IP67 dust and water resistance, should allow this year’s phones to survive everyday life (read: clumsiness) better than any of their predecessors. I don’t think we’ll see any underwater reviews of them, but they should make the more accident-prone among us a little more comfortable with not encasing their phones in tank-like shells. Maybe.

Because my phone is still in good shape, I’m strongly considering keeping it until Apple introduces a radical new design, an event rumored for this time next year. Those buying new phones in the next few weeks and months may find themselves doing the same in another two years if the phones prove as durable as they would seem to be, which presents something of a problem for a company that relies on the iPhone for much of its revenue. From that last link:

The iPhone is by far the most important and valuable product in Apple’s portfolio, and it’s worrying for Apple shareholders that the meteoric rise in iPhone sales appears to have peaked. Particularly worrying since these lower numbers take into account the launch of a new iPhone (the iPhone SE), while Q3 2015 did not.

While the doom and gloom about iPhone sales may ultimately prove temporary, and the fact that people aren’t buying as many iPhones as they have in the past comes down to many different variables, it seems like one potential strategy to combat that peak of sales may be to take a slower approach to R&D, which Apple already employs in the Mac line (especially the Mac Pro) and, to a lesser extent, iPads. It seems counterintuitive to combat slumping sales with less innovation and iteration, but we’re also talking about the company that’s sold the same MacBook Pro for more than four years, and which some people (especially students) continue to buy regardless. The logic of such a strategy can be questioned; the results (to this point, anyway) cannot be.

We’re not quite there yet, but we may be on the cusp of smartphones becoming commoditized the same way that desktop computing has become in the past decade or so. While I just upgraded my video card, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve upgraded the rest of my computer’s internals, and I don’t foresee needing to do so for at least another few years. If I wasn’t a gamer and a savvy user in general, I could probably wait even longer. I bought a 2013 MacBook Pro with retina display when I left Apple as an employee, and as I sit here typing this on that very machine, I see few reasons to upgrade anytime soon.

Apple may be anticipating the advent of longer upgrade cycles in the smartphone world, and while slowing the pace of iteration is a very conservative approach to that looming possibility, it’s also one couched in pragmatism, a hallmark of Tim Cook’s tenure as CEO of Apple.

As far as the notion that Apple has run out of ideas, consider the fact that supply chain leaks are very different from R&D leaks. While a few tech pundits have tried to guess at what Apple’s up to in its design labs with varying degrees of success, generally we don’t hear about what’s coming next until Apple begins the process of lining up suppliers (who inevitably leak out details, because the more people know about something, the more likely it is that someone will get excited and spread the word).

It’s likely that features, device mockups and entirely new products have been left on the cutting room floor, unseen by anyone except the most dedicated of Apple engineers and designers. Apple has never been a company that diversifies its product lines arbitrarily, and while it’s a little disappointing that they’ve chosen relatively safe, iterative designs for the past few years, I think we’re at least another 5 years from figuring out whether or not the revolution is truly dead.